Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick

Book II

Chapter VI


§3. I now pass to consider a theory which may be distinguished from those discussed in the preceding section as being biological rather than psychophysical: since it directs attention not to the actual present characteristics of the organic states or changes of which pleasures and pains are the concomitants or immediate consequents, but to their relations to the life of the organism as a whole. I mean the theory that ``pains are the correlatives of actions injurious to the organism, while pleasures are the correlatives of acts conducive to its welfare.'' Mr. Spencer, from whom the above propositions are quoted, subsequently explains ``injurious'' and ``conducive to welfare'' to mean respectively ``tending to decrease or loss of life'', and ``tending to continuance or increase of life'': but in his deduction by which the above conclusion is summarily established, ``injurious'' and ``beneficial'' are used as equivalent simply to ``destructive'' and ``preservative'' of organic life: and it will be more convenient to take the terms first in this simpler signification.

Mr. Spencer's argument is as follows:

``If we substitute for the word Pleasure the equivalent phrase---a feeling which we seek to bring into consciousness and retain there; and if we substitute for the word Pain the equivalent phrase---a feeling which we seek to get out of consciousness and to keep out; we see at once that, if the states of consciousness which a creature endeavours to maintain are the correlatives of injurious actions, and if the states of consciousness which it endeavours to expel are the correlatives of beneficial actions, it must quickly disappear through persistence in the injurious and avoidance of the beneficial. In other words, those races of being only can have survived in which, on the average, agreeable or desired feelings went along with activities conducive to the maintenance of life, while disagreeable and habitually-avoided feelings went along with activities directly or indirectly destructive of life; and there must ever have been, other things equal, the most numerous and long-continued survivals among races in which these adjustments of feelings to actions were the best, tending ever to bring about perfect adjustment.''

Now I am not concerned to deny the value of this summary deduction for certain purposes. But it can easily be shown to be inadequate to afford a basis for a deductive method of seeking maximum happiness for the individual, by substituting Preservation for Pleasure as the end directly aimed at. In the first place, Mr. Spencer only affirms the conclusion to be true, as he rather vaguely says, ``on the average'': and it is obvious that though the tendency to find injurious acts pleasant or preservative acts painful must be a disadvantage to any species of animal in the struggle for existence, it may---if existing only to a limited extent---be outweighed by other advantages, so that the organism in which it exists may survive in spite of it. This, I say, is obvious a priori: and common experience, as Mr. Spencer admits, shows ``in many conspicuous ways'' that this has been actually the case with civilised man during the whole period of history that we know: owing to the chances caused by the course of civilisation, ``there has arisen and must long continue a deep and involved derangement of the natural connexions between pleasures and beneficial actions and between pains and detrimental actions.'' This seems to be in itself a sufficient objection to founding a deductive method of Hedonism on Mr. Spencer's general conclusion. It is, indeed, notorious that civilised men take pleasure in various forms of unhealthy conduct and find conformity to the rules of health irksome; and it is also important to note that they may be, and actually are, susceptible of keen pleasure from acts and processes that have no material tendency to preserve, life. Nor is there any difficulty in explaining this on the evolution hypothesis since we cannot argue a priori from this hypothesis that the development of the nervous system in human beings may not bring with it intense susceptibilities to pleasure from non-preservative processes, if only the preservation of the individuals in whom such susceptibilities are developed is otherwise adequately provided for. Now this latter supposition is obviously realised in the case of persons of leisure in civilised society; whose needs of food, clothing, shelter, etc., are abundantly supplied through the complex social habit which we call the institution of private property: and I know no empirical ground for supposing that a cultivated man tends, in consequence of the keen and varied pleasure which he seeks and enjoys, to live longer than a man who goes through a comparatively dull round of monotonous routine activity, interspersed by slightly pleasurable intervals of repose and play.

[ME, Deductive Hedonism, §2]
[ME, Deductive Hedonism, §4]