Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter VI


§2. Let us begin by considering a theory, primarily psychological, which has at least the merit of antiquity---as it is admittedly derived from Aristotle,---and is, in some form or other, still current. It is that expressed by Sir W. Hamilton in the following propositions: ``Pleasure is the reflex of the spontaneous and unimpeded exertion of a power of whose energy we are conscious: pain, a reflex of the over-strained or repressed exertion of such a power.'' The phrases suggest active as ordinarily distinguished from passive states; but Hamilton explains that ``energy'' and similar terms ``are to be understood to denote indifferently all the processes of our higher and lower life of which we are conscious'',---on the ground that consciousness itself implies more than a mere passivity of the subject. I think, however, that the theory is evidently framed primarily to suit the pleasures and pains that belong to the intellectual life as such, and is only applied by a somewhat violent straining to an important class among the pleasures and pains that belong to man's animal life. For Hamilton explains his terms (a) ``spontaneous'' and (b) ``unimpeded'' to imply respectively (a) absence of ``forcible repression'' or ``forcible stimulation'' of the power exercised, and (b) absence of checks or hindrances on the part of the object about which it is conversant. But these terms seem to have no clear psychical import in application to organic sensations of the kind ordinarily called passive. E.g. the feelings and vague representations of bodily processes which constitute the consciousness of a toothache are as free from conscious repression or stimulation as those which constitute the consciousness that accompanies a warm bath:---except so far as the mere presence of pain implies constraint, since we experience it unwillingly, and the mere presence of pleasure implies the opposite: but in this sense constraint and its opposite are characteristics of the effects to be explained, and cannot therefore be regarded as their causes.

Indeed, the ethical interest and value of the theory appears to me to lie in its very one-sidedness. It tends to correct a vulgar error in the estimate of pleasure, by directing attention strongly to the importance of a class of pleasures which ordinary pleasure-seeking probably undervalues,---the pleasures that specially belong to a life filled with strenuous activity, whether purely intellectual, or practical and partly physical. In the same way it effectively dispels the popular inadvertence of regarding labour as normally painful because some labour is so, and because the pleasures connected with relief from toil---the pleasures of repose and play---are in the experience of most persons more striking than the pleasures of strenuous activity. At the same time, even if we limit the theory to the pleasures and pains immediately connected with voluntary activity---intellectual or physical---it seems to me devoid not only of definite guidance, but also of adequate theoretical precision. For it seems to imply that the exercise of our powers is always made less pleasant by the presence of impediments; but this is obviously not true either of mainly intellectual or mainly physical activities. Some obstacles undeniably increase pleasure by drawing out force and skill to overcome them, as is clearly shown in the case of games and sports: and even if we understand pain-causing impediments to be only such hindrances as repress and diminish action, I do not find that the theory is supported by experience, except so far as the repression causes the specific discomfort of unsatisfied desire. E.g. I find entertainment rather than discomfort in trying to make out objects in a dim light, or the meaning of a speech in a strange language, provided that failure does not interfere with the attainment of any end to which I attach importance. It is a fundamental defect in Hamilton's theory, even in its more limited application, that it ignores the teleological character of normal human activity.

This defect is avoided in a modification of the theory that a recent writer has adopted. ``The antithesis'', says Mr. Stout, ``between pleasure and pain is coincident with the antithesis between free and impeded progress towards an end. Unimpeded progress is pleasant in proportion to the intensity and complexity of mental excitement. An activity which is … thwarted and retarded … is painful in proportion to its intensity and complexity and to the degree of the hindrance.'' Mr. Stout admits the difficulty of applying this principle of explanation to the pleasures and pains of sense:[5] and---unlike Hamilton---he expressly recognises that ``a struggle with difficulties which is not too prolonged or too intense may enhance the pleasure of success out of all proportion to its own painfulness.'' But this qualification seems to render the propositions first laid down unimportant from our present practical point of view, whatever may be their theoretical value. I think, too, that the importance of antecedent desire, as a condition of the pleasures and pains attendant on voluntary activities, should be more expressly recognised. When desire is strong, hopeful effort to overcome difficulties in the way of fruition tends to be proportionally pleasurable---apart from actual success---while disappointment or the fear of disappointment similarly tends to be painful: but when desire is not strong, the shock of thwarted activity and unfulfilled expectation may be rather agreeable than otherwise. Thus, suppose I take a walk for pleasure, intending to reach a neighbouring village, and find an unexpected flood crossing my road; if I have no strong motive for arriving at the village, the surprise and consequent change in the plan of my walk will probably be on the whole a pleasurable incident.

The importance of eager desire as a condition of pleasure is noteworthy from an ethical point of view: as it gives the psychological basis for the familiar precept to repress---with a view to private happiness---desires for ends that are either unattainable or incompatible with the course of life which prudence marks out; and for the somewhat less trite maxim of encouraging and developing desires that prompt in the same direction as rational choice.

Suppose now we drop the dubious term ``unimpeded''---retaining Hamilton's idea of ``overstrained or repressed exertion'' as the condition of pain----and at the same time passing to a physical point of view, mean by ``activity'' the activity of an organ. We thus reach what is substantially Mr. Spencer's doctrine, that pains are the psychical concomitants of excessive or deficient actions of organs, while pleasures are the concomitants of medium activities. In considering this theory it will be convenient to take pains and pleasures separately: as it is obviously based primarily on experiences of pain rather than of pleasure,---especially of the pains of sense to which Hamilton's theory seemed palpably inapplicable. Instances are abundant in which pain is obviously caused by excessive stimulation of nerves. Thus when we gradually increase the intensity of sensible heat, pressure, muscular effort, we encounter pain at a certain point of the increase; ``deafening'' sounds are highly disagreeable; and to confront a tropical sun with unprotected eyeballs would soon become torture. Some pains, again, as Spencer points out, arise from the excessive actions of organs whose normal actions yield no feelings: as when the digestive apparatus is overtaxed. Still in none of these cases does it seem clear that pain supervenes through a mere intensification in degree of the action of the organ in question; and not rather through some change in the kind of action---some inchoate disintegration or disorganisation. And this latter cause---rather than mere quantity of stimulation---is strongly suggested by a consideration of the pains due to wounds and diseases, and even of the transient digestive discomforts which arise from an improper kind rather than an improper quantity of food. And a similar explanation seems to me most probable in the case of pains which, according to Mr. Spencer, arise from ``deficient'' action. He speaks of these as ``discomforts or cravings'' but, as I have before pointed out, bodily appetites and other desires may be strongly-felt impulses to action without being appreciably painful: and, in my experience, when they become decidedly painful, some disturbance tending to derangement may be presumed either in the organ primarily concerned or in the organism as a whole. Thus hunger, in my experience, may be extremely keen without being appreciably painful: and when I find it painful, experience leads me to expect a temporarily reduced power of assimilation, indicating some disorganisation in the digestive apparatus.[9]

In any case, empirical evidence supports ``excessive action'' of an organ as a cause of pain far more clearly than ``deficient action''. Indeed a consideration of this evidence has led some psychologists to adopt the generalisation that there is no quality of sensation absolutely pleasant or unpleasant, but that every kind of sensation as it grows in intensity begins at a certain point to be pleasurable, and continues such up to a certain further point at which it passes rapidly through indifference into pain. My own experience, however, fails to support this generalisation. I agree with Gurney that ``of many tastes and odours the faintest possible suggestion is disagreeable''; while other feelings resulting from stimulation of sense-organs appear to remain highly pleasurable at the highest degree of stimulation which the actual conditions of physical life appear to allow.

However this may be, whether we conceive the nervous action of which pain is an immediate consequent or concomitant as merely excessive in quantity, or in some way discordant or disorganised in quality, it is obvious that neither explanation can furnish us with any important practical guidance: since we have no general means of ascertaining, independently of our experience of pain itself, what nervous actions are excessive or disorganised: and the cases where we have such means do not present any practical problems which the theory enables us to solve. No one doubts that wounds and diseases are to be avoided under all ordinary circumstances: and in the exceptional circumstances in which we may be moved to choose them as the least of several evils, the exactest knowledge of their precise operation in causing pain is not likely to assist our choice.

It may be said, however,---turning from pain to pleasure,---that the generalisation which we have been considering at any rate gives us a psychophysical basis for the ancient maxim of ``avoiding excess'' in the pursuit of pleasure. But we have to observe that the practical need of this maxim is largely due to the qualifications which the psychophysical generalisation requires to make it true. Thus it is especially needed in the important cases in which over-stimulation is followed by pain not at once but after an interval of varying length. E.g. alcoholic drinking, to many, remains pleasurable at the time up to the point of excess at which the brain can no longer perform its functions: it is ``next morning'' that the pain comes, or perhaps---in the case of ``well-seasoned'' topers---not till after many years of habitual excess. It should be noted also that it is not always the organ of which the exercise gives pleasure that also, through over-exercise, causes the pain of excess. Thus when we are tempted to eat too much, the seductive pleasure is mainly due to the nerves of taste which are not overtaxed; the pains come from the organs of digestion, whose faint, vague pleasures alone would hardly tempt the voluptuary to excess. In the case of dangerous mental excitements the penalty on excess is usually still more indirect.

On the whole, granting that pleasure like virtue resides somewhere in the mean, it must be admitted that this proposition gives no practical directions for attaining it. For first, granting that both excessive and deficient activities of organs cause pain, the question still remains---as Spencer himself says---What determines in any case the lower and the higher limits within which action is pleasurable? Spencer's answer to this question I will consider presently. But there is a question no less obvious to which he does not expressly advert, viz. why among the normal activities of our physical organs, that have counterparts in consciousness, some only are pleasurable in any appreciable degree, while many if not most are nearly or quite indifferent. It seems undeniable (e.g.) that while tastes and smells are mostly either agreeable or disagreeable, most sensations of touch and many of sight and sound are not appreciably either; and that, in the daily routine of healthy life, eating and drinking are ordinarily pleasant, while dressing and undressing, walking and muscular movements generally are practically indifferent.

It does not seem that an adequate explanation can be found in the operation of habit. It is no doubt true that actions through frequent uniform repetition tend to become automatic and lose their conscious counterparts, and hedonic indifference certainly seems in some cases to be a stage through which such actions pass on the way to unconsciousness. Thus even a business walk in a strange town is normally pleasant through the novelty of the sights: but a similar walk in the town where one lives is ordinarily indifferent, or nearly so; while if one's attention is strongly absorbed by the business, it may be performed to a great extent unconsciously. On the other hand, the operations of habit often have the opposite effect of making activities pleasant which were at first indifferent or even disagreeable: as in the case of acquired tastes, physical or intellectual. Indeed such experiences have long been---I think, quite legitimately---used by moralists as an encouragement to irksome duties, on the ground that their irksomeness will be transient, through the operation of habit, while the gain of their performance will be permanent. Mr. Spencer, indeed, regards such experiences as so important that he ventures to base on them the prediction that ``pleasure will eventually accompany every mode of action demanded by social conditions''. This, however, seems unduly optimistic, in view not only of the first-mentioned tendency of habit to hedonic indifference, but also of a third tendency to render actions, at first indifferent or even pleasant, gradually more irksome. Thus our intellect gradually wearies of monotonous activities, and the ennui may sometimes become intense: so again the relish of a kind of diet at first agreeable may turn through monotony into disgust.

Some quite different explanation must therefore be sought for the varying degrees in which pleasure accompanies normal activities. Can we find this in a suggestion of Mr. Spencer's, developed by Mr. Grant Allen, that the pleasurableness of normal organic activities depends on their intermittence, and that ``the amount of pleasure is probably … in the inverse ratio of the natural frequency of excitation'' of the nerve-fibres involved? This theory certainly finds some support in the fact that the sensual pleasures generally recognised as greatest are those attending the activities of organs which are normally left unexercised for considerable intervals. Still, there are many facts that it does not explain---e.g. the great differences in the pleasures obtainable at any given time by different stimulations of the same sense; the phenomenon expressed in the proverbial phrase ``L'appétit vient en mangeant''; and the fact that the exercise of the visual organs after apparently dreamless sleep does not give appreciably keener pleasure than it does at ordinary times. It would seem that we must seek for some special cause of the pleasurable effect of intermittence in certain cases. And this cannot be merely the greater intensity of the nervous action that takes place when long unexercised and well-nourished nerve-centres are stimulated: for why, if that were the explanation, should the normal consciousness of full nervous activity, gradually attained---as when we are in full swing of energetic unwearied work of a routine kind---be often nearly or quite indifferent?

Among the various competing hypotheses offered at this point of our inquiry---no one of which, I believe, has attained anything like general acceptance as covering the whole ground---I select for discussion one that has special ethical interest.

According to this hypothesis, the organic process accompanied by pleasure is to be conceived as a ``restoration of equilibrium'' after ``disturbance'': so that the absence of appreciable pleasure in the case of certain normal activities is explained by the absence of antecedent disturbance. This view is obviously applicable to certain classes of pleasures which, though by no means rare are incidental in a normal life:---the pleasure of relief after physical pain, or after the strain of great anxiety, and the pleasure of repose after unusual exertions, intellectual or muscular. But when we attempt to apply it to sensational pleasures generally, the indefiniteness of the notion of ``equilibrium'', as applied to the processes of a living organism, becomes manifest. For our physical life consists of a series of changes, for the most part periodically recurrent with slight modification after short intervals: and it is difficult to see why we should attach the idea of ``disturbance'' or ``restoration of equilibrium'' to any one among these normal processes rather than an other: e.g. it is difficult to see why the condition of having expended energy should be regarded as a departure from equilibrium any more than the condition of having just taken in nutriment. In fact, to render the hypothesis we are considering at all applicable to normal pleasures of sense, we have to pass from the physiological to the psychological point of view, and take note of the psychical state of desire, as a consciously unrestful condition, of which the essence is a felt impulse to pass out of this state towards the attainment of the desired object. Our hypothesis, then, may take this unrestful consciousness as a sign of what, from a physiological point of view, is ``disturbance of equilibrium'', and similarly, the satisfaction of desire may be taken to be, physiologically, a restoration of equilibrium. On this assumption, the theory becomes undeniably applicable to those gratifications of sensual appetite which form the most prominent element of the pleasures of sense, as popularly conceived.

Now we have already noted that by a wide-spread confusion of thought, desire has often been regarded as a species of pain. Accordingly, the theory that we are considering was originally prompted by the ethical motive of depreciating the vulgarly overvalued pleasures of satisfied bodily appetite, by laying stress on their inseparable connexion with antecedent pain. The depreciation, however, fails so far as the appetite which is a necessary antecedent condition of the pleasure is---though an unrestful state---not appreciably painful.

In any case, admitting the physical counterpart of conscious desire to be a `disturbance of equilibrium', or an effect and sign of such disturbance, the theory seems open to obvious objections, if it is extended to cover the whole range of the pleasures of sense. For conscious desire is certainly not a necessary condition of experiencing the simple pleasures of the special senses: normally no sense of want has preceded the experience of pleasant sights, sounds, odours, flavours, or of the more important pleasures, more complex in their psychical conditions, which we call æsthetic. No doubt in special cases antecedent privation may produce a conscious want of these latter pleasures which may increase their intensity when they are at length attained: or even without any felt privation, the prospect of enjoying such pleasures may produce a keen desire for the enjoyment, which may be regarded as a ``disturbance of equilibrium'' no less plausibly than a bodily appetite. But it would be quite unwarrantable therefore to suppose a similar disturbance, though unfelt, in the ordinary cases where pleasures of this kind are experienced without any antecedent consciousness of desire or want.

I have perhaps said enough to support my general conclusion that psychophysical speculation as to the causes of pleasure and pain does not at present afford a basis for a deductive method of practical Hedonism. But, before passing from this topic, I may remark that the difficulties in the way of any such theory seem especially great in the case of the complex pleasures which we distinguish as ``æsthetic''. All would agree that æsthetic gratification, when at all high, depends on a subtle harmony of different elements in a complex state of consciousness; and that the pleasure resulting from such harmonious combination is indefinitely greater than the sum of the simpler pleasures which the uncombined elements would yield. But even those who estimate most highly the success that has so far been attained in discovering the conditions of this harmony, in the case of any particular art, would admit that mere conformity to the conditions thus ascertained cannot secure the production of æsthetic pleasure in any considerable degree. However subtly we state in general terms the objective relations of elements in a delightful work of art, on which its delight seeing to depend, we must always feel that it would be possible to produce out of similar elements a work corresponding to our general description which would give no delight at all; the touch that gives delight depends upon an instinct for which no deductive reasoning can supply a substitute. This is true, even without taking into account the wide divergences that we actually find in the ,esthetic sensibilities of individuals: still less, therefore, is it needful to argue that, from the point of view of an individual seeking his own greatest happiness, none but a mainly inductive and empirical method of estimating æsthetic pleasures can be made available.

[ME, Deductive Hedonism, §1]
[ME, Deductive Hedonism, §3]