Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter III


§4. More serious, in my opinion, are the objections urged against the possibility of performing, with definite and trustworthy results, the comprehensive and methodical comparison of pleasures and pains which the adoption of the Hedonistic standard involves. I cannot indeed doubt that men habitually compare pleasures and pains in respect of their intensity: that (e.g.) when we pass from one state of consciousness to another, or when in any way we are led to recall a state long past, we often unhesitatingly declare the present state to be more or less pleasant than the past: or that we declare some pleasant experiences to have been `worth', and others `not worth', the trouble it took to obtain them, or the pain that followed them. But, granting this, it may still be maintained (1) that this comparison as ordinarily made is both occasional and very rough, and that it can never be extended as systematic Hedonism requires, nor applied, with any accuracy, to all possible states however differing in quality; and (2) that as commonly practised it is liable to illusion, of which we can never measure the precise amount, while we are continually forced to recognise its existence. This illusion was even urged by Plato as a ground for distrusting, the apparent affirmation of consciousness in respect of present pleasure. Plato thought that the apparent intensity of the coarser bodily pleasures was illusory; because these states of consciousness, being preceded by pain, were really only states of relief from pain, and so properly neutral, neither pleasant nor painful---examples of what I have called the hedonistic zero---only appearing pleasant from contrast with the preceding pain.

To this, however, it has been answered, that in estimating pleasure there is no conceivable appeal from the immediate decision of consciousness: that here the Phenomenal is the Real---there is no other real that we can distinguish from it. And this seems to me true, in so far as we are concerned only with the present state. But then---apart from the difficulty just noticed of observing a pleasure while it is felt without thereby diminishing it---it is obvious that in any estimate of its intensity we are necessarily comparing it with some other state. And this latter must generally be a representation, not an actual feeling: for though we can sometimes experience two or perhaps more pleasures at once, we are rarely in such cases able to compare them satisfactorily: for either the causes of the two mutually interfere, so that neither reaches its normal degree of intensity; or, more often, the two blend into one state of pleasant consciousness the elements of which we cannot estimate separately. But if it is therefore inevitable that one term at least in our comparison should be an imagined pleasure, we see that there is a possibility of error in any such comparison; for the imagined feeling may not adequately represent the pleasantness of the corresponding actual feeling. And in the egoistic comparison, the validity of which we are now discussing, the objects primarily to be compared are all represented elements of consciousness: for we are desiring to choose between two or more possible courses of conduct, and therefore to forecast future feelings.

Let us then examine more closely the manner in which this comparison is ordinarily performed, that we may see what positive grounds we have for mistrusting it.

In estimating for practical purposes the value of different pleasures open to us, we commonly trust most to our prospective imagination: we project ourselves into the future, and imagine what such and such a pleasure will amount to under hypothetical conditions. This imagination, so far as it involves conscious inference, seems to be chiefly determined by our own experience of past pleasures, which are usually recalled generically, or in large aggregates, though sometimes particular instances of important single pleasures occur to us as definitely remembered: but partly, too, we are influenced by the experience of others sympathetically appropriated: and here again we sometimes definitely refer to particular experiences which have been communicated to us by individuals, and sometimes to the traditional generalisations which are thought to represent the common experience of mankind.

Now it does not seem that such a process as this is likely to be free from error: and, indeed, no one pretends that it is. In fact there is scarcely any point upon which moralisers have dwelt with more emphasis than this, that man's forecast of pleasure is continually erroneous. Each of us frequently recognises his own mistakes: and each still more often attributes to others errors unseen by themselves, arising either from misinterpretation of their own experience, or from ignorance or neglect of that of others.

How then are these errors to be eliminated? The obvious answer is that we must substitute for the instinctive, largely implicit, inference just described a more scientific process of reasoning: by deducing the probable degree of our future pleasure or pain in any given circumstances from inductive generalisations based on a sufficient number of careful observations of our own and others' experience. We have then to ask, first, how far can each of us estimate accurately his own past experience of pleasures and pains? secondly, bow far can this knowledge of the past enable him to forecast, with any certainty, the greatest happiness within his reach in the future? thirdly, how far can he appropriate, for the purposes of such forecasts, the past experience of others?

As regards the first of these questions, it must be remembered that it is not sufficient to know generally that we derive pleasures and pains from such and such sources; we require to know approximately the positive or negative degree of each feeling; unless we can form some quantitative estimate of them, it is futile to try to attain our greatest possible happiness---at least by an empirical method. We have therefore to compare quantitatively each pleasure as it occurs, or as recalled in imagination, with other imagined pleasures: and the question is, how far such comparisons can be regarded as trustworthy.

Now for my own part, when I reflect on my pleasures and pains, and endeavour to compare them in respect of intensity, it is only to a very limited extent that I can obtain clear and definite results from such comparisons, even taking each separately in its simplest form:---whether the comparison is made at the moment of experiencing one of the pleasures, or between two states of consciousness recalled in imagination. This is true even when I compare feelings of the same kind: and the vagueness and uncertainty increases, in proportion as the feelings differ in kind. Let us begin with sensual gratifications, which are thought to be especially definite and palpable. Suppose I am enjoying a good dinner: if I ask myself whether one kind of dish or wine gives me more pleasure than another, sometimes I can decide, but very often not. So if I reflect upon two modes of bodily exercise that I may have taken: if one has been in a marked degree agreeable or tedious, I take note of it naturally; but it is not natural to me to go further than this in judging of their pleasurableness or painfulness, and the attempt to do so does not seem to lead to any clear affirmation. And similarly of intellectual exercises and states of consciousness predominantly emotional: even when the causes and quality of the feelings compared are similar, it is only when the differences in pleasantness are great, that hedonistic comparison seems to yield any definite result. But when I try to arrange in a scale pleasures differing in kind; to compare (e.g.) labour with rest, excitement with tranquillity, intellectual exercise with emotional effusion, the pleasure of scientific apprehension with that of beneficent action, the delight of social expansion with the delight of aesthetic reception; my judgment wavers and fluctuates far more, and in the majority of cases I cannot give any confident decision. And if this is the case with what Bentham calls `pure'---i.e. painless---pleasures, it is still more true of those even commoner states of consciousness, where a certain amount of pain or discomfort is mixed with pleasure, although the latter preponderates. If it is hard to say which of two different states of contentment was the greater pleasure, it seems still harder to compare a state of placid satisfaction with one of eager but hopeful suspense, or with triumphant conquest of painful obstacles. And perhaps it is still more difficult to compare pure pleasures with pure pains, and to say how much of the one kind of feeling we consider to be exactly balanced by a given amount of the other when they do not occur simultaneously: while an estimate of simultaneous feelings is, as we have seen, generally unsatisfactory from the mutual interference of their respective causes.

[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued, §3]
[ME, Empirical Hedonism---Continued, §5]