Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter I


§2. It must, however, be pointed out that the adoption of the fundamental principle of Egoism, as just explained, by no means necessarily implies the ordinary empirical method of seeking one's own pleasure or happiness. A man may aim at the greatest happiness within his reach, and yet not attempt to ascertain empirically what amount of pleasure and pain is likely to attend any given course of action; believing that he has some surer, deductive method for determining the conduct which will make him most happy in the long-run. He way believe this on grounds of Positive Religion, because God has promised happiness as a reward for obedience to certain definite commands: or on grounds of Natural Religion, because God being just and benevolent must have so ordered the world that Happiness will in the long-run be distributed in proportion to Virtue. It is (e.g.) by a combination of both these arguments that Paley connects the Universalistic Hedonism that be adopts as a method for determining duties, with the Egoism which seems to him self-evident as a fundamental principle of rational conduct. Or again, a man may connect virtue with happiness by a process of a priori reasoning, purely ethical; as Aristotle seems to do by the assumption that the `best' activity will be always attended by the greatest pleasure as its inseparable concomitant; `best' being determined by a reference to moral intuition, or to the common moral opinions of men generally, or of well-bred and well-educated men. Or the deduction by which Maximum Pleasure is inferred to be the result of a particular kind of action may be psychological or physiological: we may have some general theory as to the connexion of pleasure with some other physical or psychical fact, according to which we can deduce the amount of pleasure that will attend any particular kind of behaviour: as (e.g.) it is widely held that a perfectly healthy and harmonious exercise of our different bodily and mental functions is the course of life most conducive to pleasure in the long-run. In this latter case, though accepting unreservedly the Hedonistic principle, we shall not be called upon to estimate and compare particular pleasures, but rather to define the notions of `perfect health' and `harmony of functions' and consider how these ends may be attained. Still those who advocate such deductive methods commonly appeal to ordinary experience, at least as supplying confirmation or verification ; and admit that the pleasantness and painfulness of pleasures and pains are only directly known to the individual who experiences them. It would seem, therefore, that---at any rate---the obvious method of Egoistic Hedonism is that which we may call Empirical-reflective: and it is this I conceive that is commonly used in egoistic deliberation. It will be well, therefore, to examine this method in the first instance; to ascertain clearly the assumptions which it involves, and estimate the exactness of its results.

[ME, Principle and Method of Egoism, §1]
[ME, Empirical Hedonism §1]