Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter II


§2. We have yet to give to the notions of pleasure and pain the precision required for quantitative comparison. In dealing with this point, and in the rest of the hedonistic discussion, it will be convenient for the most part to speak of pleasure only, assuming that pain may be regarded as the negative quantity of pleasure, and that accordingly any statements made with respect to pleasure may be at once applied, by obvious changes of phrase, to pain.

The equivalent phrase for Pleasure, according to Mr. Spencer, is ``a feeling which we seek to bring into consciousness and retain there''; and similarly, Mr. Bain says that ``pleasure and pain, in the actual or real experience, are to be held as identical with motive power''. But---granting that pleasures normally excite desire---it still does not seem to me that I judge pleasures to be greater and less exactly in proportion as they stimulate the will to actions tending to sustain them. Of course neither Mr. Bain nor Mr. Spencer must be understood to lay down that all pleasures when actually felt actually stimulate to exertion of some kind---since this is obviously not true of the pleasures of repose, a warm bath, etc. The stimulus must in such cases be understood to be latent and potential; only becoming actual when action is required to prevent the cessation or diminution of the pleasure. Thus a man enjoying rest after fatigue is vaguely conscious of a strong clinging to his actual condition, and of a latent readiness to resist any impulse to change it. Further, the stimulus of moderate pleasures and pains may become unfelt through habitual repression. For instance, in a habitually temperate man the stimulus to prolong the pleasure of eating or drinking usually ceases before the pleasure ceases: it is only occasionally that he feels the need of controlling an impulse to eat or drink up to the point of satiety. So again, a protracted pain of moderate intensity and free from alarm---such as a dull prolonged toothache---seems sometimes to lose its felt stimulus to action without losing its character as pain. Here again the stimulus may be properly conceived as latent: since if asked whether we should like to get rid of even a mild toothache, we should certainly answer yes.

But even if we confine our attention to cases where the stimulus is palpable and strong, Mr. Bain's identification of ``pleasure and pain'' with motive power does not appear to me to accord exactly with our common empirical judgments. He himself contrasts the ``disproportionate strain of active powers in one direction'', to which ``any sudden and great delight may give rise'', with the ``proper frame of mind under delight'', which is ``to inspire no endeavours except what the charm of the moment justifies''. [2] And he elsewhere explains that ``our pleasurable emotions are all liable to detain the mind unduly'', through the ``atmosphere of excitement'' with which they are surrounded, carrying the mind ``beyond the estimate of pleasure and pain, to the state named `passion','' in which a man is not ``moved solely by the strict value of the pleasure'', but also by ``the engrossing power of the excitement''.[3] It is true that in such cases Mr. Bain seems to hold that these ``disturbances and anomalies of the will scarcely begin to tell in the actual feeling''[4], but it seems to me clear that exciting pleasures are liable to exercise, even when actually felt, a volitional stimulus out of proportion to their intensity as pleasures; and Mr. Bain himself seems to recognise this in a passage where he says that ``acute pleasures and pains stimulate the will perhaps more strongly than an equivalent stimulation of the massive kind''.[5] I also find that some feelings which stimulate strongly to their own removal are either not painful at all or only slightly painful:---e.g. ordinarily the sensation of being tickled. If this be so, it is obviously inexact to define pleasure, for purposes of measurement, as the kind of feeling that we seek to retain in consciousness. Shall we then say that there is a measurable quality of feeling expressed by the word ``pleasure'', which is independent of its relation to volition, and strictly undefinable from its simplicity?---like the quality of feeling expressed by ``sweet'', of which also we are conscious in varying degrees of intensity. This seems to be the view of some writers: but, for my own part, when I reflect on the notion of pleasure,---using the term in the comprehensive sense which I have adopted, to include the most refined and subtle intellectual and emotional gratifications, no less than the coarser and more definite sensual enjoyments,---the only common quality that I can find in the feelings so designated seems to be that relation to desire and volition expressed by the general term ``desirable'', in the sense previously explained. I propose therefore to define Pleasure---when we are considering its ``strict value'' for purposes of quantitative comparison---as a feeling which, when experienced by intelligent beings, is at least implicitly apprehended as desirable or---in cases of comparison---preferable.

Here, however, a new question comes into view. When I stated in the preceding chapter, as a fundamental assumption of Hedonism, that it is reasonable to prefer pleasures in proportion to their intensity, and not to allow this ground of preference to be outweighed by any merely qualitative difference, I implied that the preference of pleasures on grounds of quality as opposed to quantity---as `higher' or `nobler'---is actually possible: and indeed such non-hedonistic preference is commonly thought to be of frequent occurrence. But if we take the definition of pleasure just given---that it is the kind of feeling which we apprehend to be desirable or preferable---it seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that the less pleasant feeling can ever be thought preferable to the more pleasant.

This contradiction may be avoided as follows. It will be generally admitted that the pleasantness of a feeling is only directly cognisable by the individual who feels it at the time of feeling it. Thus, though (as I shall presently argue), in so far as any estimate of pleasantness involves comparison with feelings only represented in idea, it is liable to be erroneous through imperfections in the representation---still, no one is in a position to controvert the preference of the sentient individual, so far as the quality of the present feeling alone is concerned. When, however, we judge of the preferable quality (as `elevation' or `refinement') of a state of consciousness as distinct from its pleasantness, we seem to appeal to some common standard which others can apply as well as the sentient individual. Hence I should conclude that when one kind of pleasure is judged to be qualitatively superior to another, although less pleasant, it is not really the feeling itself that is preferred, but something in the mental or physical conditions or relations under which it arises, regarded as cognisable objects of our common thought. For certainly if I in thought distinguish any feeling from all its conditions and concomitants---and also from all its effects on the subsequent feelings of the same individual or of others---and contemplate it merely as the transient feeling of a single subject; it seems to me impossible to find in it any other preferable quality than that which we call its pleasantness, the degree of which is only cognisable directly by the sentient individual.

It should be observed that if this definition of pleasure be accepted, and if, as before proposed, `Ultimate Good' be taken as equivalent to `what is ultimately desirable', the fundamental proposition of ethical Hedonism has chiefly a negative significance; for the statement that `Pleasure is the Ultimate Good' will only mean that nothing is ultimately desirable except desirable feeling, apprehended as desirable by the sentient individual at the time of feeling it. This being so, it may be urged against the definition that it could not be accepted by a moralist of stoical turn, who while recognising pleasure as a fact refused to recognise it as in any degree ultimately desirable. But I think such a moralist ought to admit an implied judgment that a feeling is per se desirable to be inseparably connected with its recognition as pleasure; while holding that sound philosophy shows the illusoriness of such judgments. This, in fact, seems to have been substantially the view of the Stoic school.

However this may be, I conceive that the preference which pure Hedonism regards as ultimately rational, should be defined as the preference of feeling valued merely as feeling, according to the estimate implicitly or explicitly made by the sentient individual at the time of feeling it; without any regard to the conditions and relations under which it arises. Accordingly we may state as the fundamental assumption of what I have called Quantitative Hedonism,---implied in the adoption of ``greatest surplus of pleasure over pain'' as the ultimate end,---that all pleasures and pains, estimated merely as feelings, have for the sentient individual cognisable degrees of desirability, positive or negative; observing further, that the empirical method of Hedonism can only be applied so far as we assume that these degrees of desirability are definitely given in experience.

There is one more assumption of a fundamental kind, which is not perhaps involved in the acceptance of the Hedonistic calculus considered as purely theoretical, but is certainly implied if it be put forward as a practical method for determining right conduct: the assumption, namely, that we can by foresight and calculation increase our pleasures and decrease our pains. It may perhaps be thought pedantic to state,it formally: and in fact no one will deny that the conditions upon which our pleasures and pains depend are to some extent cognisable by us and within our own control. But, as we shall see, it has been maintained that the practice of Hedonistic observation and calculation has an inevitable tendency to decrease our pleasures generally, or the most important of them: so that it becomes a question whether we can gain our greatest happiness by seeking it, or at any rate by trying to seek it with scientific exactness. {Note.}

[ME, Empirical Hedonism §1]
[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued §1]