Hedonism and Utilitarianism


Watson, John. “Hedonism and Utilitarianism.” Journal of Speculative Philosophy 10, no. 3 (July 1876): 271–90.


A theory of conduct is, or ought to be, the exact counterpart and reflection of a theory of knowledge. The recognition that all known objects are constituted by relations to a Reason that, however it may change, always remains at one with itself, is already by implication the complementary conception that all human actions are originated by the self-same unchangeable Reason. The indirect proof of either view lies in the self-contradictions that dog the footsteps of the theorist who tries to explain the simplest object of consciousness, or the least important act, without having recourse to the conception of an originative Intelligence. And as human error is to be explained, not as the absence of rational elements, but as a misapprehension of the mutual relations of those elements, so human guilt consists in self-identification with an object that Reason declares to be incompatible with itself. Thus, knowledge and virtue, ignorance and vice, fall into their places as component parts of one comprehensive structure. Nor is the close fellowship of metaphysical and ethical speculation less evident when the work of Reason is overlooked, than when it is appreciated. Hedonism is as inseparable from Sensationalism as soul from body: the denial in the sphere of knowledge of the originative activity of thought, leads directly in the realm of action to the negation of absolute moral distinctions. If Thought is purely formal, having no higher task than that of arranging in an arbitrary order a material passively apprehended by it, Will must in like manner move this way or that, as the pleasure imagined to be most preferable impinges upon it. But the correspondence is still more exact. Sensationalism as a philosophical theory exists in virtue of its attempted reduction of all objects of knowledge to individual feeling. The supposed improvement cannot be proceeded with, for unrelated feelings, as they cannot be known at all, are not capable of being made a basis of operation from which the reality of knowledge shall be overturned and the illusion of knowledge put in its place; but the impotence of the attempt may be concealed by the Action of self-association, granted to feeling by a pure act of mercy. Experience has thus to be explained as, primarily, the drifting together and coalescence of stray impressions under the guidance of chance, and, secondarily, as the suggested sequence of an object seemingly permanent and stable, but really fleeting and evanescent, upon the consciousness of one of the single impressions constituting it. Volition will therefore, by parity of reasoning, be the association of one feeling with another that has been suggested by a group of feelings already formed, and action rearrangement of one or more such groups. The parallelisms of Sensationalism and Hedonism are therefore complete. Acknowledge is a sequence of individual sensations, so action is the customary association of individual feelings of pleasure. The order of succession is indeed reversed, the group in the one case going before and in the other coming after; but this makes no essential difference, as in either case nothing is ostensibly admitted but a succession of individual feelings. It is evident however that, taken strictly, Hedonism does not account for morality any more than Sensationalism for knowledge. For if action is the invariable association of feelings, no other course except that actually followed is possible. Hence, just as the Sensationalist identifies momentary sensations with permanent and self-identical objects, under the disguise of "facts of experience," in order to explain the possibility of a science of nature, the Hedonist speaks of "Happiness," which really involves universal relations to self-consciousness, as if it were synonymous with pleasurable feeling, and in this way apparently accounts for a right and a wrong in conduct. And, again, as happiness may be conceived either as an end which the individual pursues with a view to his own satisfaction alone, or as that which he regards as best for the community of which he forms a part, Hedonism may, to adopt the terms of a recent writer,' be either Egoistic or Universalistic. It is more particularly upon the latter form of the theory, usually called Utilitarianism, that we propose to make a few remarks, although what we have to say will apply with equal force to the fundamental position of the former.


Universalistic Hedonism, or Utilitarianism, maintains that “right and wrong, as well as truth and falsehood, are questions of observation and experience."! If this only meant that man in a primitive state—the so-called u state of nature "—is destitute of moral ideas, and that these are slowly and gradually developed by the interaction of social forces, no reasonable objection could be made. But much more than this is intended. Some courses of action, it is implied, give rise to pleasurable feelings varying in intensity: others to different degrees of pain. Everyman naturally desires to have as much pleasure and as little pain as possible: and hence virtue is but another name for conduct that is fitted to produce a maximum of pleasure. Reason, therefore, as it does not originate feeling but only contemplates it when originated, has nothing to say to the Rightness or wrongness of an act. No act is in itself, and apart from the pleasure or pain it is calculated to produce, either virtuous or vicious. The only thing that is or can be desired is pleasure; the only thing towards which an aversion is felt is pain; and right conduct is that which, upon the whole and irrespective of the amount of pleasure or pain experienced by the individual actor, tends to an overplus of pleasure; wrong conduct that which results in an excess of pain. The truth or falsehood of Utilitarianism, therefore, depends. upon its competency to account for morality by a mere calculus of pleasurable feelings, without the introduction of elements that feeling in its purity excludes. The choice is usually represented to be, between the derivation of moral conceptions from Experience, or their foundation in Intuition; on the contrary, it may easily be shown that these rival methods, however they may pretend to differ, are at bottom beset by essentially the same imperfection. Both alike deny to Reason any share in the constitution of objects; for although Utilitarianism affects to obtain all moral distinctions from experience, while Intuition claims that right and wrong are given in an immediate judgment, still the former resolves experience into a series of feelings, and the latter has no test to apply save the variable convictions of individuals. To make good its right to exist, Utilitarianism must be able to show, not merely that moral conceptions have grown up in time, and that the virtuous man adopts as his rule of life the good of his kind, but that an ethical system maybe raided upon a purely Hedonistic basis. It has to be proved that, in the words of Bentham, ''pleasure is in itself a good; nay, even setting aside immunity from pain, the only good: pains in itself an evil, and indeed, without exception, the only evil:” and that, consistently with this fundamental postulate, legal, moral and social relations can be accounted for.


Right conduct, then, we are to suppose, is that which tends to produce the "greatest happiness altogether." "Happiness," in the mouth of the Utilitarian, does not of course mean a conceived end of action, pursued from its adequacy to satisfy the rational nature of man; it is simply a synonym for a sum of feelings—"pleasure and freedom from pain," as Mr. Mill says. “Greatest happiness" will therefore be the largest sum of pleasures that can in any way be obtained. Are we, then, in weighing pleasures against each other to take note only of their quantity f or are we to regard the quality of a pleasure as an essential ingredient in the estimate! The latter alternative is openly or tacitly adopted by all Utilitarians; and indeed, it is impossible to see how universalistic, can otherwise be distinguished from egoistic Hedonism. Mill at least is of the opinion that "it is quite compatible with the principle of utility to recognize the fact that some kinds of pleasure are more desirable and more valuable than others. It would be absurd that while, in estimating all other things, quality is considered as well as quantity, the estimation of pleasures should be supposed to depend on quantity alone." The " absurdity “we willingly concede; the "compatibility" we deny. For if the sole end of right action is the production of a maximum of pleasure, it is manifestly of no importance how the pleasure is obtained; not the means employed but the end achieved is important. “All desirable things," as Mr. Mill tells us, “Are desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the prevention of pain." But after the exclusion of everything except pleasure and pain, nothing is left as residuum except feeling as experienced by the individual subject of it. Now, feelings it is to the individual is not transferable: no man can experience the feelings of another. When therefore we are told that the true end of action is the production of the greatest amount of pleasure to men in general, the conception thus suggested is that of a number of isolated individuals, each of whom is the single subject of feelings that can be felt by no one but himself. Thus understood, the pleasurable feelings which have to be measured against each other, are transient states of consciousness momentarily changing upon the subject of them. Can we, then, say that pleasures or pains, as mere feelings, differ from each other in quality? The pleasure incidental to the satisfaction of appetite, in so far as it is a feeling, is taken out of relation to a permanent subject, and therefore appetite cannot be conceived as it might otherwise be, as the means of preserving life. All that can be said of one such pleasure as compared with another is that it is more or less pleasant. Does the pleasure arising from the realization of one of the higher desires differ in kind from a pleasure of appetite! The satisfaction I derive from the consciousness of being an owner of property is no doubt of a different quality from that which attends the gratification of my lower needs, if I am allowed to think of property as a means of developing my nature, and of bringing me into beneficial relations with my fellow men. But by the introduction of such conceptions, an element altogether different from the momentary feeling of pleasure, I experience is introduced. Excluding all the relations which constitute the peculiarity of the feeling of proprietorship, and contemplating it simply as a transitory state, nothing can be said of it that is not equally true of the satisfaction of animal appetite, except perhaps that it is a pleasure of greater intensity. In the same way, not to multiply instances, the pleasure connected with any social affection, such as benevolence, does not differ except in quantity from the pleasure incidental to the gratification of appetite, or the pleasure derived from the possession of wealth. Hence the Utilitarian is not entitled to suppose that pleasurable feelings differ in their "intrinsic nature." It is only by investing feelings with relations of thought incompatible with its transiency—by covertly bringing back the conditions of it which are ostensibly excluded—that generic differences can be predicated of one feeling as compared with another. To say that one feeling differs from another in kind, is to employ language the self-contradictory character of which is concealed because pleasure as a momentary feeling is confused with a determinate object, conceived as fitted to satisfy a rational being. The assertion that intellectual pleasures are higher than bodily pleasures, carries conviction with it only because the one class is regarded as more compatible with the higher nature of man than the other. The man, it is implied, who seeks to satisfy himself with the pleasures of sense, is either ignorant of, or willfully ignores the higher gratification he might obtain through the exercise of his intellectual faculties. But here the data from which a generic difference is inferred, are not mere feelings of pleasure, but pleasure as related to a being who " looks before and after," and whose rational nature will not be cheated by an object utterly inadequate to it. When Mr. Mill tells us that ''itis better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied:" he carries our sympathies with him at the expense of his own consistency. For, unless in the fact that a human being converts momentary feeling into an object of thought, how does he differ from the pig that finds its complete satisfaction in a sufficiency of "pig's-wash and ground barley?" and wherein is the fool inferior to Socrates except in identifying his highest good with objects incompatible with his own ideal nature of The Utilitarian has thus to face the dilemma: either pleasures differ only in A quantity, or pleasure is not the true end of action. To accept the second alternative is to admit that action is not based upon feeling at all, but upon that which at once includes and transcends it, and therefore to admit the failure of Utilitarianism to account for morality. The question now to be considered is, therefore, whether quantitative, any more than qualitative, distinctions belong to the right to individual feelings of pleasure.


Right conduct may now be defined as that which produces the greatest quantity of pleasure that, by any method of distribution, can be obtained by a given number of persons. This quantity may be either extensive or intensive, but as extensive quantity is manifestly reducible to a succession of momentary feelings of indistinguishable intensity, it will only be necessary to consider how pleasures differ from each other in degree. Now the assumption that pleasures and pains may be separately summed up and a balance struck between them, implies that each feeling has a fixed and unchanging quantity, that admits of being expressed in numerical symbols. But is anything more evident than that the quantity of pleasures or pains is not definite but infinitely variable? Are the pleasures of appetite greater or less in degree than the pleasures arising from the operation of the intellect, or from the exercise of the affections '. The question must be answered by each individual for himself. The epicure receives intense pleasure from a rare vintage; to the man of frugal habits one wine tastes as pleasantly as another. The connoisseur feels a keen delight in listening to the successful performance of the music of a master; the man to whom a line ear and a cultured taste have been denied is better pleased to hear some simple melody. There is therefore no fixity in the quantity of pleasure or pain when we compare together men differing in natural or acquired characteristics. But neither is pleasure unvarying in the same individual at different times. The intensity of a pleasure changes with one's bodily or mental state: that which in a healthy condition of mind or body gives intense delight, will in sickness or mental prostration produce pain rather than pleasure. Pleasures and pains are, therefore, per se not constant quantities. But this is simply another way of saying that as feelings they have no quantity whatsoever. The only way in which the intensity of a pleasure can be determined at all is by bringing it into relation with the circumstances and conditions under which it originates. We cannot say: “Intellectual pleasures are superior in intensity to bodily pleasures," without adding the qualification, "to the man who values the one more than the other." If we are consistent in excluding all relations of thought, we can only express the quantity of a pleasure or pain by the tautology: “This feeling has the degree of intensity which it has." Pleasurable feelings having no quantity, it is absurd to speak of a sum of pleasures. But even supposing that pleasures and pains were individually as definite in quantity as they are variable, we should not be one whit nearer to the ideal "greatest happiness" the Utilitarian requires to have granted to him. For however exact and constant may be the amount of each feeling taken by itself, no synthesis of feelings can take place so long as no element, but feeling is introduced. Each feeling perishes in the moment of its appearance and passing from consciousness ceases to be available as a unit in the feigned sum of feelings which Utilitarians assume. The only way in which feelings can be comprehended in one sum is by being related to a permanent subject of them, and so related, they “are transmuted by the alchemy of reason and come forth as universalized feelings, i.e., as a conceived object, with which a rational being may be supposed without contradiction to identify himself. A particular feeling cannot be judged of without ceasing to be particular; and it is only by the unwarrantable confusion of pleasure as a mere feeling with an object that gives satisfaction because it is, rightly or wrongly, conceived as calculated to satisfy one's spiritual nature, that Utilitarianism seems at first sight so convincing but is really so inconclusive. Examples of this identification in the writings of its representatives are abundant, but one instance may suffice. When a difficulty arises as to the relative quantity of two pleasures, Mr. Mill tells us that “The judgment of those who are qualified by a knowledge of both, or, if they differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final." Here the contrast between pleasure as feeling, and pleasure as an object of thought, is so plainly implied that he who runs may read. Mistake as to the quantity of a pleasure is admitted, and a comparison of various feelings is stated to be required before the doubtful quantity can be determined. But, as anyone who is careful in the use of his terms at once sees, the intensity of a feeling of pleasure or pain can neither be increased nor diminished: its esse, as Berkeley said, is percipi. When therefore an appeal is made from the narrower experience of one person to the wider experience of another, the implication is that pleasures can be said to have a definite quantity, or indeed any quantity whatever, only as they are fixed by relations to each other and to a self-consciousness that is present to all alike. The same tacit assumption of relations of thoughts of course implied in the appeal in the last resort to " the majority;" for if this only meant that a greater number of persons are the subjects of some feelings than of others, it might reasonably be doubted whether the feelings of the minority were not the more correct criterion of the two. The only reason that can be given for accepting the judgment of the majority is the greater probability of a fuller and more accurate comparison having been made. But fullness and accuracy have no meaning when applied to mere feelings; each feeling is to the individual exactly what it appears to be, and as no feeling can repeat itself, a comparison of feelings that shall exclude rational elements is a manifest contradiction. The decision of the majority may be accepted as a rough test of the value of different courses of action—although a thing is not made right merely because it has a preponderance of votes in its favor—but only because that decision is more likely to be in accordance with the demands of reason. The quantity as well as the quality of feelings being therefore a fiction, no further refuge now remains in which the Utilitarian may conceal the self-contradictory character of his theory. This conclusion will be strengthened and enforced by a comparison of the principle of "greatest happiness" with the conception of Duty, which every ethical system must account for on pain of extinction.


The conception of right and wrong in conduct implies the opposition of what is and what ought to be. Any explanation of human conduct that omits the notion of moral obligation fails at a vital point, and, however plausible it may be, is beset by some radical imperfection. Could the notion of duty have originated at all, upon the supposition that pleasurable feeling is the sole end of action? We are not forgetting that the pleasure of which the Utilitarian speaks is the greatest pleasure altogether, and not the maximum of pleasure which any individual may secure for himself. The distinction is of the highest importance; but it has no force in the present connection, unless there is first established, without the introduction of any element save feeling, such a radical divergence in the character of different acts as shall warrant the opposition of moral and natural. Now, as has already incidentally appeared, the Utilitarian is bound to conceive the aggregate of individuals among whom a supposed sum of pleasures has to be divided, as independent atoms: no man can have another's feelings because no man can be another. The volitions, therefore, of each separate individual are determined by what is to him most preferable. As all Hedonists are forward to tell us, the will is always governed by motives, and the motive which prevails is the desired pleasure which seems strongest. If the "strongest desire" is but another name for that which is preferred, we have the perfectly innocent affirmation: "A man always prefers what he prefers;" a proposition it can be no one’s interest to dispute. Nevertheless, this barren truism is sometimes put forward as if it were a most important discovery. Thus, Bentham tells us that " there is no such thing as any sort of motive that is in itself a bad one;" a remark which he expands by saying that even when " a man's motive is ill-will, malice, envy, or cruelty, it is still a kind of pleasure that is his motive." Thisseems to amount to no more than the assertion, that a man never prefers what he does not wish, which may be at once granted, the important and only important point being, whether the motive to all actions is a feeling of pleasure or an object constituted*by reason. The Utilitarian is bound to adopt the former alternative, and as a matter of fact all Utilitarians do adopt it. The relation of desire and volition will therefore consist in a peculiar kind of transition from one feeling to another. The feeling imagined to be the most pleasant is the most pleasant, for a feeling exists only as it is felt. Is to matter, therefore, what the feeling may be, it is the only one the individual is capable of having. That which he actually does, and that which he ought to do, are synonymous; or rather the distinction of an "ought" from an “is" can never present itself at all. Granting, then, that a man may make the production of the largest sum of pleasure upon the whole his motive of action, his conduct will not for that reason be in the least degree more praiseworthy than that of the man who acts from the most selfish of motives. The only way in which the feeling of another can become a motive of action is by being imagined as the most pleasurable of a number of competing feelings present to the doer of the act. But this does not make conduct so determined moral, the individual being incapable of acting otherwise than he does. He cannot be unselfish any more than selfish, virtuous any more than vicious; such distinctions have here no meaning whatever. Nor is this conclusion avoided by saying that the actions of men can be improved by the influence of public opinion, education or punishment being brought to bear upon them. This may account for an alteration in conduct, but it does not make it moral. For as such influences can only operate upon the self-enclosed individual by increasing or diminishing the intensity of certain feelings, the latter state of the man will be in no way superior morally to thirst; volition will still follow the pleasure imagined to be most desirable just as before. When, therefore, Mr. Mill tells us that “men often, from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be less valuable," hesitates a fact which, just because it is undeniable, overthrows the supposed derivation of morality from purely Hedonistic principles. As objects of desire there is no difference between " nearer “and "remoter good," when by "good" we are to understand imagined pleasure; for as imagined every pleasure is present. And as that which makes one pleasure "less valuable" than another is its inferior intensity, which is never different from what it appears to be, we are not entitled to speak of "infirmity of character" in a morally depreciatory sense. Conversely, neither the hero nor the martyr is entitled to moral approbation, since the motive that actuates him is that which to him is the greatest pleasure of which he is at the time capable, even though it be a pleasure that the majority of men would not in like circumstances feel.


Strange as this conclusion may seem to be, it is deliberately adopted by eminent Utilitarians. Thus Mr. Mill, following Bentham, says: "The morality of an action depends entirely upon the intention—that is upon what the agent wills to do. But the motive, that is the feeling which makes him will so do, when it makes no difference in the act makes none in the morality." At first sight this seems to be an unqualified affirmation that morality lies entirely in the act, apart altogether from the relation of the act to the doer of it. But upon looking more closely we see that this cannot be what is meant. It will not be held that the soldier or public executioner is deserving of moral reprobation for the mere fact of destroying a human being's life, although the act in itself does not differ from willful murder. We are to consider the "intention," i.e., whether the deed is attributable to a given person or is something with which he has nothing to do. But the mere fact that an act is mine does not make it either right or wrong: and when we ask how the act has come to be mine, the only answer we can get from the Utilitarian is that it follows the strongest desire. Thus, we come back to the old difficulty, that the act is determined by the most pleasant feeling, and the feeling is not under the control of the agent. There can, therefore, be no propriety in saying that a given act is mine, if by this is meant that I am responsible for it; take away the motive and you at the same time destroy the act and therefore the intention: alter the motive and you also alter the intention. It does not seem, then, that the mere distinction of motive and intention which will account for the lightness or wrongness of actions. And In fact, Utilitarians virtually admit as much when they judge of the morality of actions by the amount of pleasure they are fitted to bring to the majority. While an act must be done intentionally before it can have any moral value, it is further required that it should be in itself of a nature to produce the greatest happiness of the community. What, then, is the nature of the connection between an act and its consequences? The Utilitarian, excluding all relations of thought, is bound to hold that itis simply a uniform sequence between feelings. As, however, feelings cannot associate themselves, any order among feelings and therefore any uniformity is inconceivable: and hence we are compelled to have recourse to relations constituted by thought. To determine that an act is moral, we must view it, on the one hand in relation to the doer of it, and on the other hand in relation to the effects it is fitted to produce upon others. Here, therefore, we have introduced the complex relations implied in the reference of an act to a permanent self that is in essential relation with other permanent selves; we have in short gone entirely beyond individual feelings and based the notion of morality upon reason. It is unnecessary to show in detail that the same result is reached by considering the "disposition" or "character “of a person. If no element save feeling is introduced, the distinction of a good and bad disposition becomes meaningless, since by disposition must in that case be understood, simply the way in which feelings are accustomed to follow each other in consciousness—a thing over which the individual has no control. Only in relation to a universal self can we speak of character or disposition at all; and if, as we are told, a good disposition is that "bent of character from which useful actions are likely to arise," we come as before to appraise acts as right or wrong only as they are related to a self-conscious being, who may identify his own good with that of others. This conclusion will perhaps appear more evident by now changing our point of view. Having inquired what meaning morality has for the individual, upon the supposition that the end of action is the greatest happiness of all, let us now ask upon what grounds the Utilitarian maintains that a maximum of pleasure is the true end of action, when it is granted to him that each individual is ruled solely by the desire of pleasure—in other words, what is the proof of Utilitarianism.


"No reason," says Mr. Mill, "can be given why the general happiness is desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes it attainable, desires his own happiness. Each person’s happiness is a good to that person, and the general happiness therefore a good to the aggregate of all persons." The inference here is from what men actually do desire to what they ought to desire. It therefore carries its own condemnation with it: for there is no passage from what is to what ought to be without the introduction of some intermediate conception to bridge over the gap. Upon examination, this "proof" will be found to be either tautological or self-contradictory, or a truism, according as we interpret the ambiguous term "happiness." If by the happiness each person desires are to be understood "greatest happiness.'" itis a tautology; for—waiving altogether the objection that there is such a thing as selfishness—if each man desires the happiness of the community, it is an identical proposition to say that all men desire it. Perhaps, however, by "happiness" is meant one's own pleasure irrespective of, and even in opposition to, the pleasure of others. This again is palpably untrue, and it is negatived by Mr. Mill himself, when he cites the hero and martyr as instances of men who voluntarily do without happiness, ''for the sake of something which they prize more than their individual happiness." But supposing it true, we have then the inference that because each man seeks his own pleasure, he should not seek his own pleasure; that universal selfishness is a proof of universal unselfishness. Finally, if "happiness" is to be identified with the degree of satisfaction that accompanies or rather constitutes desire, we fall into a truism. Yet this must be wham. Mill means when he says that "desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable, or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; to desire anything except in proportion to the idea of it as pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility. “As "desiring a thing" means simply the feeling of desire, it must be granted that the desire is proportionate to the pleasure, simply because the desire and the pleasure are one: no matter what the desire may be, it must be pleasant, for the sufficient reason that it is desire. If therefore the statement that "each one desires his own happiness" is only the truism that every desire involves an imagined satisfaction, no proof that the "greatest happiness" ought to be desired can be extracted from it. It would seem, then, that, interpret "happiness" as we please, so long as we assume it to be identical with pleasurable feeling, no reason can be given why a man ought to seek the "general happiness''. “Mr......... Sidgwick attempts to escape this difficulty by saying that "the fact that 'I am I' cannot make my happiness intrinsically more desirable, more fit to be accepted by my reason as the standard of right and wrong in conduct, than the happiness of any other person." But does "the fact that I am I," make my happiness less desirable? Can any reason be given, from the nature of pleasure alone, why I should forgo my own pleasure merely in order that the pleasures of others should be increased? Unless it can be shown that, when a conflict arises between individual and general happiness, the pleasures of others ought to be preferred, it is morally a matter of indifference which alternative I adopt. The mere universalizing of pleasure does not in any way alter its essential nature; and unless there is something in the abnegation of individual pleasure, which renders it moral, proof of the superiority of unselfishness over selfishness is impossible. Such proof can only be given by a theory which is based upon the negation of individual feeling. Not that all morality is comprehended in the Stoic's contempt of the natural desires; the mere negation of passion does little more than explain the abstract notion of duty, the essential presupposition of right action. But even to account for the initial conception of morality is more than Hedonism in either of its forms can do, unless allowed to make assumptions it is incompetent to verify. If it were possible for a human being to be what he is, and yet to go on, without let or hindrance, gratifying each impulse as it arises, it is inconceivable how the most rudimentary moral conception should ever shape itself in his consciousness. But because he is higher than any of his desires, the perceived inadequacy of an object to satisfy the claims of his reason may become to him the beginning of spiritual life. The man who prefers intellectual or aesthetic pleasures to the evanescent pleasures of sense, has perceived the unsatisfactoriness of one of two courses open to him, as a means of satisfying his universal nature; and in so far as he consciously sacrifices the lower, he has begun that process of self-abnegation that repays itself a thousand-fold in a fuller and deeper life. The relation is essentially the same when the social affections come into collision with the self-regarding impulses. No one can be conscious of selfishness without at the same time perceiving that the uncontrolled pursuit of his own pleasure conflicts with the reasonable claims of others: no man can be unselfish until he recognizes that, if he only chose to give way to the promptings of his unregenerate feelings, he might throw off the burden of obligations "heaped upon him by the higher needs of others. Here the moral tie lies not merely in identification with others, but in a surrender to the faith that is in him, that a universal end will best realize his universal nature. Such a universalization of feeling by negation of immediate impulse creates anew and fairer world, from which au infinity of spiritual relations emanate. The "greatest happiness of the greatest number may be defined to be the end of action, if it means that the noblest are those who count no individual feeling dear to them, provided they win their true place in the Universe, and be found to have the likeness not of the natural man, but of the spiritual. But Utilitarianism will not give itself up freely and unreservedly to this faith; it coquets, now with Hedonism, and now with Spiritualism; refusing to give up untransformed feeling, and yet unwilling to let reason go. It cannot even be defined without contradiction; for a "universalistic" Hedonism is as unthinkable as a complex atom. It falls into compromise—the unpardonable singing philosophical speculation. Like those worldly saints who keep one eye on heaven and another on earth, it makes friends with the mammon of unrighteousness even while professing to have a soul scorn of all things base.


The application of the Greatest Happiness principle to the sphere of subjective morality does not at once do violence to the convictions of mankind. There is one sphere, however, where the contradiction inherent in Utilitarianism comes clearly to the surface. The absoluteness of the moral obligation to respect the rights of others has so strongly impressed itself on the human mind, that a shock is felt the moment it is hinted that the conception of Justice is resolvable ultimately into a desire for the general happiness. It is usually assumed that those acts classed as just differ in essential nature from those that are only expedient; being right in their own nature, quite irrespective of any consequences they may have. A contrast so decided the Utilitarian cannot admit, without giving up the derivation of morality from a calculus of pleasurable feelings, and hence the necessity of a special explanation of the conception of justice. Mr. Mill devotes a whole chapter to this topic; attempting to reconcile the apparent infinity of the claims of justice with the asserted origin of it in the desire of general happiness. His efforts are directed to the end of showing that the supposed difference in kind between acts of expediency and acts of justice is really a difference of degree, subjective necessity being confused by the influence of well-known laws of association with objective validity. That which constitutes the specific difference between justice and other obligations of morality is the fact that the former implies a correlative right in some person or persons. No one has a moral right to our generosity or beneficence, because although these are virtues, we are under no obligation to practice them towards any definite person, nor at any prescribed time. Justice, on the other hand, implies that there is something which it is not only right to do, and wrong not to do, but which some individual person may claim from us as a moral right. This being the distinctive character of the idea of justice, we can explain how the sentiment or feeling accompanying it has grown up. The essential ingredients in the feeling are, the knowledge that there is some definite individual or individuals, to whom harm has been done, and the desire to punish the person who has done the harm. This desire is the spontaneous outgrowth of two natural feelings, the animal impulse of self-defense, and the feeling of sympathy with those closely connected with us; both of which either are or resemble instincts. These impulses men possess in common with the animals. The superiority of manliest in the capacity he has of enlarging his sympathy beyond those to whom it is naturally directed, so as to embrace all human and even all sentient beings; and in his more developed intelligence, which enables him to perceive that the interest of others is also his own interest. The peculiar energy of the feeling of justice arises from the animal element of retaliation implied in it; its apparent necessity from the supreme importance of the interest it guards—security, the very condition of human happiness. This account of the origin of justice implicitly explains why there is a moral obligation to practice it. The feeling of retaliation in itself has nothing moral in it; it only becomes moral when exclusively subordinated to the social sympathies, i. e., a desire for the general happiness. The moral obligation, then, to respect the rights of others lies in the fact that in no other way can the same amount of pleasure be produced, while every violation of justice strikes at the very basis of those interests which are the very condition of human happiness.


It must be at once apparent to anyone who has got the clue to the equivoque latent in Utilitarianism that this account of the origin and binding force of the sentiment of justice involves, from first to last, a confusion between pleasurable feelings and objects that reason alone can constitute. It endeavors to explain in the first place, the origin of the feeling that accompanies the idea of justice; and, secondly, the moral obligation to observe rules of justice. The rights of others ought to be respected (to take the last point first) because a violation of them tends to diminish the ideal sum of pleasures the community is entitled to. The feeling of retaliation has nothing moral in it, but the same feeling when universalized so as to include an aggregate of individuals, takes out a moral hue and becomes a duty. Mr. Mill is in doubt as to whether this feeling is an instinct or only something resembling an instinct. If it is an instinct, it cannot in the first instance be a desire for pleasure, since pleasure must be experienced before it can be imagined as desirable. It may, however, be said that although it is at first blindly thrown out at an indefinite object, it afterwards takes the form of an imagination of pleasure. This assumption must be made, if the sentiment of justice partly derived from it is to be explained as a generalization of pleasure. The desire for one's own pleasure, we are to suppose, shows itself negatively in resentment against the person who, by harming us, decreases the amount of satisfaction we should otherwise have had. This natural desire for individual pleasure becomes moral when it is widened so as to include the pleasure of the "greatest number." But if there is nothing moral in the desire of the greatest amount of pleasure one may secure for himself, how does the mere fact that the desire is for a maximum of pleasure, to be distributed among an aggregate number of individuals, alter the essential nature of the feeling?


The mere diminution of pleasure admittedly does not constitute injustice, for it is held to be right to lessen the pleasure of the wrongdoer. If, as Mr. Sidgwick says, the mere' fact that "I Am I'' does not make my pleasure of more importance than that of others, neither does the mere fact that "they are they" introduce any new element into the calculation, unless it can be shown that the good of the community is of more importance than the experience of pleasure by the individual. The inference here again is, that desire for one's own happiness involves the admission that desire for the general happiness ought to be the end of action—a conclusion that will not conclude. It may be replied that the capacity of sympathy is an essential ingredient in the sentiment of justice: that man not only by his intelligence comprehends an infinite number of individuals within the area of his vision, but also appropriates their feelings, making them his own. But upon the exclusion of everything but pleasurable feeling, sympathy can only enable the individual to imagine the greater amount of pleasure that will accrue to a given aggregate of persons by the observance of rules of justice, and the less amount that will follow their violation; it can afford no criterion of the Rightness or wrongness of action determined by the desire of either amount. Introducing no new element, sympathy with pleasurable feeling does not account for a generic distinction between just and unjust acts, and therefore affords no reason, to the man who seeks to gratify his natural desire for the largest share of pleasure he can in any way obtain for himself, why he should give up part of what he finds pleasant in deference to a sentiment which he may regard—and which the Utilitarian cannot prove he is wrong in regarding—as over-refined and unreasonable.


The explanation of this failure to account for any moral superiority of just over unjust acts, is easily seen by an examination of the Utilitarian account of the origin of the sentiment of justice. It has already appeared that Mr. Mill hesitates to say whether the natural feeling of retaliation is an instinct or only resembles an instinct. This vacillation is an unconscious testimony to the intrinsic distinction of an immediate feeling and an object of reason. The ambiguous term "harm" covers things that differ not only in degree but in kind. The feeling of resentment may be an "instinct1 ' when it takes the form of an immediate impulse to return a blow. Such an impulse, as Mr. Mill rightly says, is not moral but natural; it can only be shown to be right or wrong by being brought into relation with a law that is expressive of the essential nature of reason. Now these relations tacitly implied when the term "harm" is employed to designate wrong which strikes at me, not through my immediate sensations, but through an object that is mine only because it has been brought within my consciousness by thought and has been made a means of expressing my personality. Mr. Mill, however, treats intelligent self-interest as if it only differed from the immediate impulse to retaliate a bodily hurt in the extent of its range. Eights of property, for example, are conceived simply as a permanent possibility of securing pleasure, the negation of which is supposed to call up the instinct of self-defense solely because the essentials of happiness are endangered. But here there is implied the permanent relation of an object to a universal self—a relation which converts an indifferent thing into a means of expressing personality—and the negative relation that self to others. It is neither an unreasoning instinct, nor a desire for mere pleasure, that is the basis of self-interest, but an object conceived to embody right through its relation to reason. It is this latent reference to; A rational will that makes it possible for the individual to attach the notion of moral delinquency to the violation of his own rights by another, or the violation of another’s rights by himself. The obligation to respect rules of justice implies, as Mr. Mill admits, a correlative right in an individual or individuals, and such a relation is only possible between persons, each of whom, as rational, conceives of himself and of others as universal and permanent. When, therefore, we are told that the ultimate justification of rights lies in their tendency to promote the general happiness, we may admit the statement to be true in the sense that rights, being made for man, ultimately rest upon their capacity of ministering to the spiritual satisfaction of man. But happiness, so understood, is not pleasure at all. but that "blessedness" which springs from the realization of reason by a being who in his essential nature is rational.


And this leads us to remark that in Mr. Mill's account of sympathy, the same covert assumption of elements contradictory of pleasurable feeling is made, as vitiates his explanation of the nature of self-interest. Sympathy with the pleasure of those related to us by natural ties, which is said to be or to resemble an instinct, is widened so as to embrace one's tribe or country, or even all mankind. But a mere extension of a desire of pleasure cannot account for morality, unless upon the supposition that there is an identification of one's own good with the interests of other rational beings. The moral element is made conceivable only because it is assumed that self-sacrifice for the good of others is demanded by the very law of man's being. Except as a relation between persons, rendered possible by the substantial unity of their nature, the social feelings cannot be shown to be more praiseworthy than the purely self-regarding desires. And this recognition of what is involved in the expansion of sympathy enables us to solve difficulties that have baffled all the efforts at explanation of hedonists: for example, why selfishness should be condemned as immoral, and enlightened self-love approved aright; and why self-sacrifice for irrational ends should be blamed, while self-denial in the interest of a good cause, such as that of country or religion or mankind, is praised. So long as no difference in the objects of desire except degree of intensity is admitted, no line can be drawn at which selfishness ends and self-love begins; the limit must be as variable as the changing feelings of individuals. But when the morality of an act is seen to be constituted by its perceived adequacy to the spiritual nature of man, self-love is distinguishable from selfishness, as the conscious subordination of the natural tendency to rational ends differs from an immediate surrender of oneself to their influence. Sacrifices undergone in a bad cause, at the prompting of natural affection for others, cannot be opposed to the heroism, philanthropy or piety, that leads to a negation of individual pleasures, unless on the ground that reason condemns the one course as a violation of its own inalienable rights, and approves of the other as a realization of itself. Thus, the belief of Intuitionism in the absoluteness of moral obligations, which Utilitarianism opposes but cannot overthrow, is established by means of a principle which embraces while it transcends the measure of truth appropriated by either system; changing subjective conviction into objective necessity by exhibiting reason as that which realizes itself in the laws, institutions, social relations and religion of a people. And this conception of reason alone explains how it is possible forgone phase of civilization to be at once the condition and the prophecy of the next; how change becomes progress; and how a moral principle may extend its range and widen its sweep while its foundation remains unmoved and immovable.

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