Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter III


§3. There is, however, another way in which the habit of mind necessarily resulting from the continual practice of hedonistic comparison is sometimes thought to be unfavourable to the attainment of the hedonistic end: from a supposed incompatibility between the habit of reflectively observing and examining pleasure, and the capacity for experiencing pleasure in normal fulness and intensity. And it certainly seems important to consider what effect the continual attention to our pleasures, in order to observe their different degrees, is likely to have on these feelings themselves. The inquiry at first sight seems to lead to irreconcilable contradiction in our view of pleasure. For if pleasure only exists as it is felt, the more conscious we are of it, the more pleasure we have: and it would seem that the more our attention is directed towards it, the more fully we shall be conscious of it. On the other hand Hamilton's statement that ``knowledge and feeling'' (cognition and pleasure or pain are always ``in a certain inverse proportion to each other'', corresponds prima facie to our common experience: for the purely cognitive element of consciousness seems to be neither pleasurable nor painful, so that the more our consciousness is occupied with cognition, the less room there seems to be for feeling.

This view, however, rests on the assumption that the total intensity of our consciousness is a constant quantity; so that when one element of it positively increases, the rest must positively---as well as relatively---diminish. And it does not appear to me that experience gives us any valid ground for making this general assumption: it rather seems that at certain times in our life intellect and feeling are simultaneously feeble; so that the same mental excitement may intensify both simultaneously.

Still it seems to be a fact that any very powerful feeling, reaching, to the full intensity of which our consciousness is normally capable, is commonly diminished by a contemporaneous stroke of cognitive effort: hence it is a general difficulty in the way of exact observation of our emotions that the object cognised seems to shrink and dwindle in proportion as the cognitive regard grows keen and eager. How then are we to reconcile this with the proposition first laid down, that pleasure only exists as we are conscious of it? The answer seems to be that the mere consciousness of a present feeling---apart from any distinct representative elements---cannot diminish the feeling of which it is an indispensable and inseparable condition: but in introspective cognition we go beyond the present feeling, comparing and classifying it with remembered or imagined feelings; and the effort of representing and comparing these other feelings tends to decrease the mere presentative consciousness of the actual pleasure.

I conclude, then, that there is a real danger of diminishing pleasure by the attempt to observe and estimate it. But the danger seems only to arise in the case of very intense pleasures, and only if the attempt is made at the moment of actual enjoyment; and since the most delightful periods of life have frequently recurring intervals of nearly neutral feeling, in which the pleasures immediately past may be compared and estimated without any such detriment, I do not regard the objection founded on this danger as particularly important.

[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued, §2]
[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued, §4]