Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter IV


§3. On the whole, it must, I think, be admitted that the Hedonistic method cannot be freed from inexactness and uncertainty by appealing to the judgments of common sense respecting the sources of happiness. At the same time I would not exaggerate the difficulty of combining these into a tolerably coherent body of probable doctrine, not useless for practical guidance. For first, it must be observed, that it is only occasionally and to a limited extent that these commonly commended sources of happiness come into competition with one another and are presented as alternatives. For example, the pursuit of wealth often leads also to power (besides the power that lies in wealth) and to reputation: and again, these objects of desire can usually be best attained---as far as it is in our power to attain them at all---by employment which in itself gives the pleasure that normally attends energetic exercise of one's best faculties: and this congenial employment is not incompatible with adequate exercise of the affections, social and domestic; nor with cultivated amusement (which must always be carefully limited in amount if it is to be really amusing). And no one doubts that to carry either employment or amusement to a degree that injures health involves generally a sacrifice of happiness, no less than over-indulgence in sensual gratifications.

And as for the philosophical or quasi-philosophical paradoxes as to the illusoriness of sensual enjoyments, wealth, power, fame, etc., we may explain the widespread acceptance which these find by admitting a certain general tendency to exaggeration in the common estimates of such objects of desire, which from time to time causes a reaction and an equally excessive temporary depreciation of them. As we saw (chap. iii.) it is natural for men to value too highly the absent pleasures for which they hope and long: power and fame, for example, are certainly attended with anxieties and disgusts which are not foreseen when they are represented in longing imagination: yet it may still be true that they bring to most men a clear balance of happiness on the whole. It seems clear, again, that luxury adds less to the ordinary enjoyment of life than most men struggling with penury suppose: there are special delights attending the hard-earned meal, and the rarely-recurring amusement, which must be weighed against the profuser pleasures that the rich can command: so that we may fairly conclude that increase of happiness is very far from keeping pace with increase of wealth. On the other hand, when we take into account all the pleasures of Culture, Power, Fame, and Beneficence, and still more the security that wealth gives against the pains of privation and the anxieties of penury---for the owner himself and those whom he loves---we can hardly doubt that increase of wealth brings on the average some increase of happiness: at least until a man reaches ail income beyond that of the great majority in any actual community. Thus on the whole it would seem to be a reasonable conclusion that, while it is extravagant to affirm that happiness is ``equally distributed through all ranks and callings'', it is yet more equally distributed than the aspect of men's external circumstances would lead us to infer: especially considering the importance of the pleasures that attend the exercise of the affections. Again, common sense is quite prepared to recognise that there are persons of peculiar temperament to whom the ordinary pleasures of life are really quite trifling in comparison with more refined enjoyments: and also that men generally are liable to fall, for certain periods, under the sway of absorbing impulses, which take them out of the range within which the judgments of common sense are even broadly and generally valid. No one (e.g.) expects a lover to care much for anything except the enjoyments of love; nor considers that an enthusiast sacrifices happiness in making everything give way to his hobby.

In fact we may say that common sense scarcely claims to provide more than rather indefinite general rules, which no prudent man should neglect without giving himself a reason for doing so. Such reasons may either be drawn from one's knowledge of some peculiarities in one's nature, or from the experience of others whom one has ground for believing to be more like oneself than the average of mankind are. Still, as we saw, there is considerable risk of error in thus appropriating the special experience of other individuals: and, in short, it does not appear that by any process of this kind,---either by appealing to the common opinion of the many, or to that of cultivated persons, or to that of those whom we judge most to resemble ourselves,---we can hope to solve with precision or certainty the problems of egoistic conduct.

The question then remains, whether any general theory can be attained of the causes of pleasure and pain so certain and practically applicable that we may by its aid rise above the ambiguities and inconsistencies of common or sectarian opinion, no less than the shortcomings of the empirical-reflective method, and establish the Hedonistic art of life on a thoroughly scientific basis. To the consideration of this question I shall proceed in the last chapter of this book: but before entering upon it, I wish to examine carefully a common belief as to the means of attaining happiness which---though it hardly claims to rest upon a scientific basis---is yet generally conceived by those who bold it to have a higher degree of certainty than most of the current opinions that we have been examining. This is the belief that a man will attain the greatest happiness open to him by the performance of his Duty as commonly recognised and prescribed---except so far as he may deviate from this standard in obedience to a truer conception of the conduct by which universal good is to be realised or promoted. The special importance of this opinion to a writer on Morals renders it desirable to reserve our discussion of it for a separate chapter.

[ME, Objective Hedonism and Common Sense, §2]
[ME, Happiness and Duty, §1]