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1. Hedonism

The classical utilitarian tradition reached its apogee in the work of Henry Sidgwick, in particular in his Methods of Ethics (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed., reprinted with a foreword by John Rawls, Indianapolis-Cambridge, Hackett Publish Company, 1981, p. 16, Unless otherwise noted we refer to this edition. There is a reprint from the original edition of The Works of Henry Sidgwick, Bristol, Thoemmes Press, 1996. For historical references, see R. Crisp, Reasons and the Good, Oxford , Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 98 note 4.). In various ways, including his explicit philosophical intuitionism and the weight he attached to the egoistic point of view in his “dualism of practical reason”, Sidgwick broke with that tradition. But his commitment to hedonism remained unshakeable throughout his life.

What kind of hedonism did Sidgwick avow? Unlike certain of his predecessors, Sidgwick clearly distinguished between the descriptive and the prescriptive or normative:

Utilitarianism … is an ethical, and not a psychological doctrine: a theory not of what is, but of what ought to be. Therefore, more particularly, it does not include … the proposition that in human action, universally or normally, each agent seeks his own individual happiness or pleasure.
(Clarendon Press, 2006, p. 98 note 4. 103 See Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, read on December 16, 1873, for the Metaphysical Society, now in Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000, p. 3.)

Sidgwick denied psychological hedonism. He believed that human beings have ultimate desires for objects other than pleasure and the relief of pain (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book I; chapter IV, section II, paragraph III, p. 45), and may be led to act in way that they know will be, overall, worse for them in hedonistic terms: «“Video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor” is as applicable to the Epicurean as to anyone else»(Henry Sidgwick, “Pleasure and Desire”, Contemporary Review, April, 1872, pp.662-672, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1899, edited by Arthur and Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, Macmillan, 1904, new edition published by Thoemmes Press, 1996, p.665, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, pp.79-98.). His hedonism, then, is evaluative:
a theory of the good.

Again, Sidgwick was unusually clear about the distinction between the good for an individual, on the one hand, and overall or general good, on the other, and saw in this distinction an important difference between ancient and modern ethics. Modern thinkers, he believed, tended to think in terms of general good and universal ends, while for a Greek “the primary question as naturally and inevitably took an egoistic form” (Henry Sidgwick, “Green’s Ethics”, in Mind, April, 1884, vol. 9, pp. 169-187, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays, 1870-1899, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, pp.243-258, at pp.252-253. Here Sidgwick criticizes T. H. Green in particular for seeking to collapse the distinction between one’s own good and that of others.). The Good which he studied was “good for himself” (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and Ultimate Good”, in Mind, vol 2, 1877, pp.27-38, at p. 28, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1899, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, pp.89-98, at p.89).
I am not here adverting to the distinction between:

Egoistic hedonism: Each agent has strongest reason to promote the greatest balance of pleasure over pain in her own life; and

Universal hedonism: Each agent has strongest reason to promote the greatest balance of pleasure over pain overall, her own pleasures and pains counting equally with those of others.

This is a distinction not between theories of the good but between “methods of ethics” or theories concerning how we should act, and is a topic for another paper. The distinction I have in mind is as follows:

Welfare hedonism: What is good for any individual is the
greatest balance of pleasure over pain; and

Global hedonism: The only good or value is the greatest
balance of pleasure over pain.

Welfare hedonism, as Sidgwick understood is, is a theory about “happiness”(Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 5; see also “Mr. Spencer’s Ethical System”, in Mind, vol. 5, 1880, pp. 216-226, at p. 218, note 2, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1899, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, pp. 219-227, at p. 221.). It is quite consistent with welfare hedonism to admit non-hedonistic values, as long as they are not values which constitute welfare or well being. I might deny global hedonism, claiming, for example, that beauty, in itself, adds to the value of the universe, while insisting that the only thing that adds to the value of a life for the person living it is pleasure. Sidgwick himself accepted both welfare and global forms of hedonism. In this article, I shall concentrate on welfare hedonism. The arguments for and against welfare hedonism often carry across directly to global hedonism, and several of the issues concerning global hedonism as Sidgwick construed it, such as for example concerning the question of whether there are distributive constraints on the impartial maximization of the good, concern not hedonism as such but justice and other matters. Sidgwick again stood out from some of his utilitarian predecessors in seeing clearly that the word “good” does not mean “pleasant”. First, although attributions of goodness are frequently related to judgements of the pleasantness of the object in question, the goodness often corresponds to a particular kind of pleasantness. So even if a wholesome wine, for example, were productive of a higher than average balance of pleasure over painin the longer term, we would not call it good on that account (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book I, ch. IX, s. II, pr. I, p.107). Further, although we think an individual is the final arbiter on the pleasantness of his or her own experience, in cases of goodness we often – as for instance in aesthetics – allow for the possibility of good taste or judgement (idem, p.108). Finally, Sidgwick anticipates G.E. Moore’s “open question” argument, noting that equating the two terms would be to reduce hedonism to a tautology (idem, p.109).

So how are we to understand Sidgwick’s conception of a person’s welfare or “good on the whole”? After some discussion, he defines the notion as follows:

[A] man’s future good on the whole is what he would now desire and seek on the whole if all the consequences of all the different lines of conduct open to him were accurately foreseen and adequately realised in imagination at the present point of time (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book I, ch. IX, s. III, pr. IV, p.111).

Sidgwick notes that this definition involves only certain facts, and involves no judgements of value or “dictates of reason”. We might also object to it on the ground that it takes no account of the phenomenon of weakness of will, the existence of which led Sidgwick to reject psychological hedonism and indeed psychological egoism more generally. Sidgwick suggests it is more in line with common sense to grant some authority to my desire for my good on the whole and revises his definition of “ultimate good on the whole for me” accordingly as “what I should practically desire if my desires were in harmony with reason, assuming my own existence alone to be considered” (idem,p.112).

This view is a version of what Rabinowicz and Rønnow-Rasmussen call a “fitting-attitude” analysis of goodness, and it is in danger of running into what they call “the wrong kind of reasons objection” (W. Rabinowicz & T. Rønnow-Rassmussen, “The Strike of the Demon: on Fitting Pro-attitudes and Value”, in Ethics 114, 2004, pp. 391-423). Consider a case in which an evil demon threatens to inflict great agony on me if I do not desire something that appears to be irrelevant to what is ultimately good for me, such as the possession of a saucer of mud (R. Crisp, Review of J. Kupperman, Value… and What Follows Philosophy, 75, 2000, pp. 458-462). I now have a strong reason to desire the mud, but it is hard to see why we should accept its possession as a constituent of my welfare or wellbeing. This objection is still controversial, and several lines of response have been offered to it on behalf of FA-analyses. But what lies behind the objection is the nature of the dependent relation of desire upon goodness, which any account of goodness in terms of desire is likely to reverse. We desire things, such as pleasure, because they are good, often because they are good for us. “Good for”, then, is better seen as a primitive notion, one that is best not elucidated in terms of fitting attitudes.

It is important to note that Sidgwick’s welfare hedonism concerns primarily not how well off a person is at any point in time, but how well their life goes for them as a whole. Pleasure and pain can be traded off against one another, so that a person’s ultimate good or greatest possible happiness is to be understood as the “greatest attainable surplus of pleasure over pain”(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. I, s. I, pr. IV, p.120.). Further, ultimate good should be understood in a temporally neutral way, so that the value of some future pleasure to me does not depend, in itself, on when in my life it occurs: “this equal and impartial concern for all parts of one’s conscious life is perhaps the most prominent element in the common notion of the rational – as opposed to the merely impulsive – pursuit of pleasure” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. I, note 1, p.124.).
This is not of course to deny that distance in time can affect the probability of my obtaining some pleasure.

2. The Argument for Hedonism

Sidgwick’s arguments for hedonism need to be understood in the context of his overall epistemological position. One major component of that position is his philosophical intuitionism (For further discussion see R. Crisp, “Sidgwick and the Boundaries of Intuitionism”, in Ethical Intuitionism, edited by P. Stratton-Lake, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2002, pp. 56-75), according to which certain propositions are “self-evident” and a person who properly and reflectively grasps them can be justified in believing them on the basis of that grasp. Like many hedonists, Sidgwick tends not to begin with positive arguments for the hedonistic position before moving on to consider alternative positions and objections (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer. Page.5 may be interpreted as a conceptual argument for hedonism, according to which when pleasure is not understood sufficiently broadly it “cannot be distinguished from Happiness, except that Happiness is rather used to denote a sum or series of those transitory feelings each of which we call a Pleasure”. But such an interpretation ignores Sidgwick’s strictures elsewhere against turning substantive ethical judgments into tautologies through stipulating senses. His claim here is rather the substantive one that happiness is pleasure, broadly understood – or rather, as Sidgwick himself characteristically notes immediately – the greatest balance of pleasure over pain). Rather he outlines his arguments in response to these positions and objections. His first argument “appeals to the immediate intuition of reflective persons” (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and Ultimate Good”, in Mind, 1877, vol. 2, pr. XII, p.35, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1877-1889 now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p.95; see also Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book III, ch. XIV, s. V, pr. I, p. 400). It is important to note that the self-evident truth of welfare hedonism or its supporting principles (E.g. the views that nothing is good out of relation at least to some consciousness or feeling, The Methods of Ethics, book I, ch. IX, s. IV, pr. I, p.113, that it could not be rational to aim at beauty apart from contemplation by human beings The Methods of Ethics book I, ch. IX, s. IV, pr. II, p.114; see also book I, ch. IX, s. IV, pr. IV, p.114; and book III, ch. XIV, s. IV, pr. I, p. 398, or that virtue is desirable only in so far as it promotes desirable conscious life The Methods of Ethics book III, ch. XIV, s. II, pr. III, p. 395.), according to Sidgwick, does not consist in their being obvious. And by “immediate” here, Sidgwick does not mean to imply that acceptance of the proposition will occur as soon as any reflective person considers it. Indeed, that goes against the very idea of reflection. His view is rather that welfare hedonism will be accepted by anyone who reflects in the right way upon it.

He is here addressing the individual reader, and is quite aware of the fact that such a reader may disagree with him (J.Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, 1863. Reprint edited by R. Crisp, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998, ch. IV, pr. X. . Unless otherwise noted we refer to this edition. Here we may note a similarity between Mill’s “proof” of the utility principle and Sidgwick’s position, the difference consisting primarily in that while Mill appeals to the reader to consider his desires, Sidgwick asks for a straightforward judgment). Here there is something of a difficulty in Sidgwick’s ethical epistemology (R. Crisp, “Intuitionism and Disagreement”, in Festschrift for Robert Audi, edited by M. Timmons (forthcoming).). Sidgwick asks himself which conditions an apparently self-evident proposition must meet if it is to be established “in the highest degree of certainty attainable” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book III, ch. XI, s. II, pp.338-343.). The first three conditions are relatively unproblematic: the terms of the proposition must be clear and precise, the self-evidence of the proposition must be ascertained by careful reflection, and the proposition must be consistent with other beliefs held by the same subject. The fourth condition – which we might call the consensus condition – is more troublesome:

[I]f I find any of my judgments, intuitive or inferential, in direct conflict with a judgment of some other mind, there must be error somewhere: and if I have no more reason to suspect error in the other mind than in my own, reflective comparison between the two judgments necessarily reduces me temporarily to a state of neutrality.

Though Sidgwick is fully aware that “several cultivated persons do habitually judge that certain ideal goods are ends independently of the pleasure derived from them” (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and Ultimate Good”, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1889, p. 35, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, p.95.), he tends – as we shall shortly see – to deal with this fact by providing arguments against the non hedonistic position rather than evidence in support of the claim that we should suspect error in the mind of non-hedonists. These arguments might themselves provide material for an evidence-claim, if it turned out that the antihedonists position could be changed to hedonism through reflection upon them or that the anti-hedonists had failed to consider the arguments in the first place, this latter strategy being especially appropriate since some of the arguments are intended to explain how the relation between “ideal” goods and pleasure might have led the anti-hedonists mistakenly to attribute value to non-hedonistic goods. Nevertheless, it remains a brute fact today that if anything a greater proportion than in Sidgwick’s day of “cultivated persons” are non-hedonists about welfare, and that many such persons have heard the arguments of Sidgwick and other hedonists and remain unpersuaded. In these circumstances, Sidgwick’s own consensus principle appears to require him to suspend judgment on the question of whether welfare hedonism provides the best account of well-being.

This is not to say that, if the relevant parties suspend judgement, debate on such contested issues can no longer proceed. What will change is the conception of his or her own view held by each party. Rather than thinking that she has seen the truth, and that her opponent has not, she will accept that she has no justification for thinking that she is closer to the truth than her opponent, but continue to insist, with the aid of whichever arguments she wishes, that this is how things appear to her (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Scepticism, edited and translated by
J. Annas & J. Barnes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994, sections, [15], [31], [151], [196], etc.).

Sidgwick’s second argument for hedonism consists in “the results of a comprehensive comparison of the ordinary judgments of mankind” (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and the Ultimate Good”, reprinted in Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1889, p. 35, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 95; see also Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book III, ch. XIV, s. V, pr. I, p. 400). Here we see, rather than Sidgwick’s philosophical intuitionism, his Aristotelian commitment to the role of dialectic in ethics. Consider, for example, Aristotle’s own discussion of happiness. In a central chapter of his Nicomachean Ethics (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, edited by I. Bywater, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1894, 7.1, 1145b 2-7.), Aristotle offers his famous “function” argument to the conclusion that the human good consists in virtuous rational activity. In the following chapter, he attempts to shore up that conclusion in part by showing how his conclusion is consistent with, indeed supported by, many of the “ordinary judgments of mankind”.

Against the non-hedonists, Sidgwick notes that the ideal goods do produce pleasure in several ways, and that common sense approves of them roughly in proportion to the degree of such productiveness (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and Ultimate Good”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 95, see also The Methods of Ethics, book III, ch. XIV, s. V, pr. II, p. 401.). He claims that this is obvious in the cases of beauty and freedom. As noted above, he is rather too sanguine about this. For a clear denial of Sidgwick’s position on beauty, for example, consider Moore’s case in Principia Ethica of the beautiful universe which Moore believes has value even if it is never seen by anyone (G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1903, pp. 83-84). Sidgwick accepts that knowledge is harder for the hedonist to deal with, but notes first that common sense is especially impressed by knowledge that bears fruit. Even when it is pure “blue skies research”, it may receive some approbation on the grounds that such apparently pure research often has unforeseen useful results, that it provides the enquirer with the innocent pleasures of satisfying curiosity, and that the intellectual disposition towards the acquisition of such knowledge is likely to be valuable as a whole. Further, just as common sense tends to set limits on the acquisition of knowledge according to its fruitfulness, so the same is true of the question of how far another important alleged ideal good, virtue, is to be pursued in independence from its valuable hedonistic consequences.

I find Sidgwick’s arguments powerful and in large part persuasive. But because of the prevalence of serious and reflective disagreement, I suggest that Sidgwick’s own consensus condition requires “epistemic humility” of all of us as far as the correct account of well-being is concerned (Sarah McGrath, “Moral Disagreement”, (forthcoming).). This has implications for contemporary ethics, in which welfare hedonism is often quickly dismissed, often with an appeal to Robert Nozick’s famous experience machine objection (see below). Hedonism remains as serious a contender as any other for the title of correct theory of welfare, and in that respect the arguments of Sidgwick and other hedonists deserve significantly more sympathy and attention than they currently receive.

3. Pleasure

Sidgwick’s view, then, is that what is ultimately good for me is pleasurable experience, and that a life becomes better for me the greater the balance of pleasure over pain in that life. Sidgwick interprets the notions of pleasure and pain broadly, to include “respectively all kinds of agreeable and disagreeable feelings” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. I, s. I, pr. IV; and “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 5.). This breadth enables him immediately to sidestep any simple charge of sensualism.

Recall welfare hedonism as stated above: What is good for any individual is the greatest balance of pleasure over pain. A welfare hedonist can be understood as answering only the first, or both, of the following questions (R. Crisp, Reasons and the Good, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2006 pp. 102-103):

1. The substantive question: Which goods and bads constitute well-being?

2. The explanatory question: What makes these goods and bads good and bad for the subject?

One may be a welfare hedonist only at the substantive level, claiming, for example, that though pleasure is the only good, it is good because it perfects human nature. Here the answer to the explanatory question is perfectionist, not hedonist. I take it that a “true” hedonist will provide hedonistic answers to both questions, claiming that what makes pleasurable experience good is its pleasurableness or pleasantness, and nothing else. Sidgwick does not draw this distinction, but given his attack on the notion of ideal or non-hedonistic goods and his claim against Mill that the “higher” pleasures may be preferred by the hedonist only on grounds of their pleasantness (see below), we can safely assume that he is a true hedonist.

What is pleasure? Theories of pleasure can usefully be divided into two types – what Wayne Sumner has called internalism and externalism (L. W. Sumner, Welfare, Happiness and Ethics, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp. 87-91). According to internalism, pleasurable experience has a special, introspectible “feeling-tone”, and it is their possessing this feeling-tone that different pleasurable experiences have in common and explains our calling them all “pleasures”. It is this kind of view which Sidgwick has in mind in his discussion of Alexander Bain, when he asks:

whether pleasure is to be understood as a measurable quality of feeling… independent of its relation to volition, and strictly undefinable from its simplicity? – like the quality of feeling expressed by “sweet”, of which also we are conscious in varying degrees of intensity. (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. III, p.127)

Sidgwick is considering this view of pleasure as an alternative to the view of Spencer and Bain (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p.5.) which he himself had previously held that pleasure is to be understood as a feeling which prompts the will to maintain it when present or to produce it when absent (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book I, ch. IV, s. II, pr. I, pp.42-43, where the view is stated, but only tentatively for the purposes of the argument at that point, with a reference forward in n.1 to The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, p.124. This note implies that Sidgwick is, in that passage in book II, merely qualifying and limiting the view. I believe he is best understood as rejecting it – see below in the main text). This view is a kind of externalism, in that it characterizes pleasure by reference to some mental state independent
of pleasure as a special kind of introspectible feeling-tone. In his discussion of this view, Sidgwick notes first (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. II, p.124) that any such stimulation must often be assumed to be latent, as in the case of relaxation after exertion or of someone who has repressed his desires for certain things which would give him pleasure. Further, exciting pleasures have a volitional strength out of proportion to their intensity as pleasures, and some experiences which create a strong stimulus towards avoidance are either not painful or only slightly painful (Sidgwick’s characteristically apt example is that of being tickled) (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. III, p.127).

Sidgwick’s preferred definition of pleasure, then, is offered as an alternative to both the version of internalism involving simplicity and independence from desire and the Spencer-Bain “stimulus to the will” externalist account. That definition appears on the face of it to be externalist, and is worth quoting in full:

for my own part, when I reflect on the notion of pleasure,--using the term in the comprehensive sense which I have adopted, to include the most refined and subtle intellectual and emotional gratifications, no less than the coarser and more definite sensual enjoyments,-- the only common quality that I can find in the feelings so designated seem to be that relation to desire and volition expressed by the general term “desirable”, in the sense previously explained. I propose therefore to define Pleasure – when we are considering its “strict value” for purposes of quantitative comparison--as a feeling which, when experienced by intelligent beings, is at least implicitly apprehended as desirable or – in cases of comparison – preferable. (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. III, p.127)

This is Sidgwick’s version of the “heterogeneity objection”, which has led so many modern writers to reject internalist conceptions of pleasure (e.g. James Griffin, Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986, p. 8: “The trouble with thinking of utility as one kind of mental state is that we cannot find any one state in all that we regard as having utility – eating, reading, working, creating, helping. What one mental state runs through them all in virtue of which we rank them as we do?”.). Pleasurable experiences are so various that introspection is unable to identify any single feeling-tone common to all of them. And in place of the notion of the stimulus to the will, Sidgwick inserts the idea that pleasure – that is, what pleasurable experiences have in common and which makes them pleasures – is “a feeling which, when experienced by intelligent beings, is at least implicitly apprehended as desirable”.

There are two ways in which the role of apprehension in this account may be understood. According to the first – the actual apprehension account – pleasure occurs only when some feeling is in fact apprehended as desirable. Given that such apprehension is possible only for the “intelligent beings” Sidgwick mentions, this would imply that “lower” animals, as well as certain human infants and certain mentally defective humans, are unable to experience pleasure. Further, some of our most pleasant experiences seem to be those in which are engrossed in what we are doing, where the question of whether our feelings or experiences at that time are far from our minds (M. Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York, Harper & Row, 1990). To avoid these difficulties, Sidgwick may be read as offering a hypothetical apprehension account, according to which a feeling is pleasurable if its subject would apprehend it as desirable if that subject were intellectually capable of such apprehension.

As Sidgwick himself recognizes (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. IV, p.128.), we sometimes prefer certain experiences for non-hedonistic reasons. Sometimes these experiences need not even be pleasurable. Imagine a woman giving birth, who reflects upon her experience and views it as desirable on the ground of its significance as part of the great cycle of life and death. Of such a case, Sidgwick says:

[I]t is not really the feeling itself that is preferred, but something in the mental or physical conditions or relations under which it arises, regarded as cognisable objects of our common thought. For certainly if I in thought distinguish any feeling from all its conditions and concomitants – and also from all its effects on the subsequent feelings of the same individual or of others – and contemplate it merely as the transient feeling of a single subject; it seems to be impossible to find in it any other preferable quality than that which we call its pleasantness, the degree of which is only cognisable directly by the sentient individual. (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. V, p.128.)

This is a strong claim, and it may be that Sidgwick is illicitly moving from the view that hedonism is the only plausible account of the value of feelings to the view that it is the only possible view. Take the case of giving birth again, and imagine that the woman in question is feeling awe. It seems that she might well consider that feeling in isolation, and value it in itself. Sidgwick will of course believe her evaluation to be mistaken, but that is not the point. Its availability falsifies his definition of pleasure. When we apprehend some feeling or experience as valuable, we sometimes do this for non-hedonistic reasons. And, perhaps more importantly, when we do so for hedonistic reasons, Sidgwick still owes us an account of what the pleasurableness that grounds our evaluation actually consists in.

In fact, I believe Sidgwick is close to accepting the internalist conception of pleasure which had been standard in the empiricist tradition. He claims that he can find nothing common to pleasurable experiences than their being apprehended as desirable. This would suggest that there is no “feeling” of pleasure. Rather, there are many different feelings or experiences, which are then apprehended as desirable in themselves. But Sidgwick does speak of pleasure, in the core of his definition, as “a feeling” and as a “kind of feeling” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. III, p.127; and book II, cap. II, s. II, pr. IV, p.128.). Further, he goes on to speak of pleasantness as itself cognisable by the subject (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. II, pr. V, p.128.). If all we had in play were feelings, non-hedonistically construed, which were then apprehended as desirable, it is hard to see how pleasure could itself be cognizable. Rather, the non-hedonistically-construed feeling would be immediately apprehended as desirable, and pleasure would be merely this combination of the feeling and its apprehension.

I suggest, then, that Sidgwick is at heart an internalist about pleasure, who is misled by the heterogeneity argument into offering an externalist view which is open to serious objections. Pleasurable experiences are indeed very different from one another. But what they have in common is their pleasantness, and this can be taken to be a primitive aspect of our phenomenology which requires no elucidation through reference to the will, the desires, or any other independent mental capacity or state.

4. Objections and Replies

Since Sidgwick believes welfare hedonism to be highly plausible in itself in the light of impartial reflection, he often, as I have mentioned, develops lines of argument in support of hedonism in the form of responses to objections. Several of these objections, emanating from writers such as T.H. Green and F.H. Bradley, are of their time, and Sidgwick often provides a convincing rebuttal. Consider, for example, the impossibility of conception objection – Green’s claim that “pleasure as feeling, in distinction from its conditions that are not feelings, cannot be conceived”. As Sidgwick notes, this contradicts not only common sense and the views of empirical psychologists, but an assumption which underlies many of Green’s arguments elsewhere (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. I, pr. IV, p.133). The view also has counter-intuitive implications. If it were correct, then we could not compare geometrical angles of objects without comparing their sides, since angles cannot be conceived of apart from sides (Henry Sidgwick, “Hedonism and Ultimate Good”, reprinted in
Miscellaneous Essays 1870-1889, edited by A. and E. M. Sidgwick, p. 36, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, pp. 96-97.).

Another example is a non-additivity argument found in both Bradley and Green that pleasures cannot be added since they occur in series and not at the same time. Again Sidgwick notes the counter-intuitiveness of the argument as applied elsewhere (Ibid. See also, Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. I, pr. V, p.134.). If Bradley and Green are right, then we could not add periods of time, since they occur in series. Nor is it clear why the good must be possessed all at once. (I cannot resist quoting the following dry remark by Sidgwick, a rare case of his well-attested sense of humour entering his philosophical writing: “The man who has philosophised himself into so serious a quarrel with the conditions of human existence that he cannot be satisfied with the prospect of neverending bliss, because its parts have to be enjoyed successively, and under the condition of being successively desired – such a man, I venture to think, is not a typical phronimos”. See Henry Sidgwick, “Green’s Ethics”, Mind, April 1884, p. 176-177, in Miscellaneous Essays, 1870-1899, edited by A. e E. M.
Sidgwick, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, p. 249) Nor should we accept that the mere fact that pleasures are transient is a cause of pain either at the time or subsequently. It is true that we often gain much pleasure from enduring sources, such as friendships. But this is a mere exemplification of the “paradox of hedonism” that we often gain more pleasure by pursuing objects other than pleasure itself (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. II, pr. III, pp. 136-137.).

One common modern objection to welfare hedonism rests on the notion of evil pleasures (J. Harsanyi, “Morality and the Theory of Rational Behaviour”, in Utilitarianism and Beyond, edited by A. Sen & B. Williams, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 39-62, at p. 56). The welfare hedonist, it is objected, must accept that the pleasures of a sadist are good, whereas it is clear that they are not only bad, but evil. This objection is especially problematic for a global hedonist who claims that pleasure is the only value. A welfare hedonist can draw the distinction between “good for” and “good”, and might even accept that, while sadistic pleasures are good for the sadist, they are indeed morally evil. But this response is of course unavailable to Sidgwick. His answer – though he nowhere explicitly considers the issue – would be that the objection rests on common sense morality, and that any plausibility that form of morality has must rest upon a foundation of universal hedonism. So it cannot provide a solid basis for an objection to universal hedonism itself.

Another objection to which Sidgwick’s welfare hedonism is open is what we might call the philosophy of swine objection (J. Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. II, pr IV.). Sidgwick does indeed offer us a broad conception of pleasure, encompassing not only sensual or bodily enjoyment but the intellectual or “higher” pleasures of, say, music or literature. But, the objection goes, he is committed to the view that, say, enjoying full appreciation of a late Beethoven quartet is valuable for exactly the same reason as a drink of beer on a warm day – its pleasantness. But such aesthetic activity is of an entirely different order from the lower, animal pleasures of satisfying bodily desires. Hedonism, in other words, is unacceptably reductionist.

John Stuart Mill famously attempted to deal with the philosophy of swine objection within a hedonist framework by drawing a distinction between quantity and quality of pleasure, and arguing that some pleasures, because of their quality, are “higher” than others (J. Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. II, prs. IV-VIII, pp. 55-59.):

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.

If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account (J. Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. II, pr.V, p.56.).

Sidgwick has several objections to Mill’s account. The first is to the Platonic notion that the judgement of the person with a capacity for higher pleasures is to be accepted, on the ground that he or she has experienced both kinds of pleasure, whereas the person with a capacity for lower pleasure alone has too narrow a base for judgement: “who can tell that the philosopher’s constitution is not such as to render the enjoyments of the senses, in his case, comparatively feeble?” (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, p. 6; see also The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. VII, pr. II, p.148.). On the face of it, this seems a reasonable objection. But its force is somewhat diminished by the fact that many intellectuals seem able to engage in paradigmatically lower pleasures with as much gusto as sensualists.

Another objection is more serious, and had already been made by a number of writers (T. H. Green, Prolegomena to Ethics, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1883, pp. 167-178.). Sidgwick claims that Mill faces a dilemma (Henry Sidgwick, “Grote on Utilitarianism” I, review by Grote, “Examination of the Utilitarianism Philosophy”, in Cambridge University Reporter, February 8, 1871, now in Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Methods, edited by M. G. Singer, pp. 174-175; review by Grote, “Examination of the Utilitarianism Philosophy”, in Academy, April 1, 1871, now in Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Methods, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 177; Henry Sidgwick, “Fowler’s Progressive Morality”, Mind 1885, pp.266-271, now in Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Methods, edited by M. G. Singer, pp. 262-263; Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. I, s. I, pr IV, p.121.). Either he can remain a hedonist, in which cases all differences of quality must be resolved into those of quantity, since a higher pleasure must be more valuable because, and only because, it is more pleasurable. Or he can say, as indeed he does, that a higher pleasure is more valuable in so far as it is more noble. But this is to abandon hedonism in favour of a view which allows for ideal, non-hedonistic goods – in this case, nobility.

There is in fact a way out of this dilemma for Mill (R. Crisp, Mill on Utilitarianism, London: Routledge, 1997, pp. 31-35.). He had inherited from the empiricist tradition a conception of pleasure according to which its value at any time depends only on its pleasantness, and its pleasantness only on the intensity of the pleasure and its duration. Logically, Mill is permitted to claim that qualities such as nobility also increase pleasantness, thus allowing for the possibility of higher pleasures without giving up hedonism. It has to be said that this strategy does face some serious objections. First, why expect that properties such as nobility will indeed increase pleasantness – indeed that pleasantness will vary in proportion to the degree of nobility? Many experiences which might be described as noble seem, if anything, painful (consider again the case of giving birth). Second, if nobility can affect value in this way indirectly, why should it not do so directly, without mediation through pleasure? Mill’s position so understood does seem to be something of an unstable – if nevertheless hedonistic – compromise between hedonism and the view that there are ideal goods.

What response might Sidgwick make to the philosophy of swine objection? Mill appears to accept that there are so-called “discontinuities” of value, such that some finite amount of a higher pleasure cannot be compensated for by any amount of lower, thus putting the experience of Beethoven and that of the beer on entirely different footings (J. Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. II, pr.V, p. 56. The term “discontinuity” is Griffin’s; see Well-Being, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 85-89.). Sidgwick allows the possibility of such discontinuities, but claims not to have detected any (Henry Sidgwick, “Fowler’s Progressive Morality”, p. 262; see also Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. I, p.123.), asserting also that ordinary prudential reasoning rests on the assumption that there are none. As he recognizes (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. I note 1, p.123.), discontinuities of value introduce the mathematics of infinity into value theory, and few would accept, for example, that to avoid the smallest risk of extreme agony we should be prepared to accept the greatest imaginable amount of moderate pain below the alleged threshold of discontinuity. Nevertheless, because he does leave conceptual room for discontinuity, this response to the objection is open to Sidgwick. What he would probably do, however, is again appeal to his debunking account of commonsense morality, arguing that the principles on which the objection rests (that art is especially valuable or noble, for example, and valuable in itself independently of its consequences) are themselves grounded on the hedonistic value which their adoption promises.

One of the most influential objections to hedonism in modern times revolves around the example of the experience machine. The most famous statement of the objection is by Robert Nozick :

The Experience Machine. Suppose there were an experience machine that would give you any experience you desired. Superduper neuropsychologists could stimulate your brain so that you would think and feel you were writing a great novel, or making a friend, or reading an interesting book. All the time you would be floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain … Would you plug in? What else can matter to us, other than how our lives feel from the inside? (R. Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford, Blackwell, 1974, pp. 42-43. See also R. Nozick, The Examined Life, New York, Simon & Schuster, 1989, pp. 104-108.)

This form of the objection applies to any theory of well-being which includes the “experience requirement” that well-being consists only in the quality of our mental states, understood independently from the external world. Since hedonism is such a theory, then it has to confront the objection.

The objection has most force in cases in which authenticity seems significant. Imagine that I’m drinking a cold beer. It is not implausible for a hedonist to claim that the value of the enjoyment in this activity would be the same if I were in fact plugged into an experience machine. But now imagine that I’m writing a novel, and enjoying it. According to the hedonist, the level of well-being of someone on an experience machine which “copies” my veridical experiences and replays them to that person is, in this respect, equal to mine. This seems highly counter-intuitive. Don’t creativity, genuineness, authenticity, knowledge, truth, accomplishment, and many other goods matter independently of pleasure?

The experience machine objection, then, essentially amounts to the traditional claim that there are non-hedonistic or ideal goods. So, although Sidgwick never confronts it explicitly, what he says about ideal goods provides us with the opportunity to construct a response on his behalf. As we have already seen, he draws attention to the fact that ideal goods are productive of pleasure, and claims that common sense approves such goods roughly in proportion to that productiveness. Because of his acceptance of the consensus principle, however, Sidgwick appears committed in the case of the experience machine to suspension of judgement, since many reflective thinkers accept that the ideal goods illuminated by the objection are genuine and there is no plausible account available of how such thinkers could be mistaken. Sidgwick may indeed claim that they are mistaken, believing that items valuable because productive of pleasure are valuable in themselves and misled by the fact that pursuing these items as if good in themselves may – because of the paradox of hedonism – be the most effective way to advance the balance of pleasure over pain. But this claim would be a mere hypothesis, which though it may be open to empirical verification has not been so verified or even properly tested.

The final objection to hedonism I shall discuss is not so much to the theory itself as to its practicability. Sidgwick’s discussion of “empirical hedonism” is a brilliant and detailed inquiry into whether one would be able to make decisions on the basis of a hedonistic account of value (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III; see also Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, p. 6.). In recent years, many of Sidgwick’s doubts have been borne out by empirical research in psychology and related disciplines, and it is almost certainly fair to say that some of his claims would be worth testing further (D. Kahneman, E. Diener & N. Schwartz edited by., Well-Being: The Foundation of Hedonic Psychology, New York, Russell Sage Foundation,1999).

Sidgwick claims that the utilitarian idea of the “greatest happiness” assumes comparability across all pleasures and pains:

that every kind of feeling has a certain intensive quantity, positive or negative (or perhaps zero), in respect of preferableness or desirableness, and that this quantity can be known; so that each can be weighed in ideal scales against every other (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M.G. Singer, p.6; see also The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. II, s. I, pr. I, p.123.).

This claim is an exaggeration, as Sidgwick himself would probably have accepted. It is not inconsistent to claim that there is a possible state of the world in which happiness, or unhappiness, is at its greatest, but that we have absolutely no idea how to bring about these states. What Sidgwick means is that the notion of maximum happiness can be put to work only on the assumption of commensurability.

Sidgwick does not set out to discuss whether this assumption is correct. But he does claim that it is not verified by experience (that of course is not to say that it is falsified) (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. VI, pr. I, p. 146.) and that various empirical objections can be made to it. First (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 6; see also The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. V, pr. I-IV, p. 144; and book II, ch. III, s. VI, pr. II, p.146; and book II, ch. III, s. VII, pr. I-IV, p.147.), though we often do compare pleasures and pains, the results of those comparisons depend on our mood, state of satiety, or other qualities and capacities at the time and we have no reason to think that there is a “neutral” vantage point for such comparisons or that we could recognize it if there were. The “cool hour”, indeed, may not be the best time to assess pleasures, since many of them require a preceding desire. And people differ greatly in their views on particular kinds of pleasure and pain (consider, for example, “the ever-renewed controversy between Age and Youth”. Second (and here it is relevant to consider global hedonism), interpersonal comparisons pose a special problem in that utilitarianism has again to assume a neutral vantage point (that of “a standard man”) from which pleasures and pains can be represented accurately without bias (Henry Sidgwick, “Utilitarianism”, now in Essays on Ethics and Method, edited by M. G. Singer, p. 6). Third, the comparisons we make are both occasional and rough, and provide insufficient basis for extension into any kind of system (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. IV, pr. I, p.140.). Fourth, in any comparison at least one of the pleasures being compared must be a representation in our imagination, and the representation may be inaccurate (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. IV, pr. IIV, pp. 141-142.). One source of such error is the fact that more “emotional” pains are easier to remember than “sensational” ones (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. V, pr. II, p. 142.).

Sidgwick clearly tried hard to make systematic judgements about the pleasantness and painfulness of various of his own experiences. But he found it extremely difficult even in the case of sensual pleasures, such as those from the food and the wine in a good dinner. And in comparisons between pleasures of different kinds the difficult increased (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. IV, pr. VIII, p.143). Common sense, he suggests, provides an insufficiently reliable account of the sources of pleasantness (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. IV.). Any of its generalizations are true only for the “average” human being, and many people do not have the opportunity properly to assess the range of pleasures possible for humanity (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. IV, s. I, pr. IV, p.151). Our desires often fail to correspond to pleasurableness, and our judgements can be distorted by “moral” preferences (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. IV, s. I, pr. VVI, p.153.). And there is of course a great deal of disagreement (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. IV, s. II, pr. I, p.151). Further, many of the sources of pleasure apparently so valued by common sense – social status, fame, power, society, domestic affections – are in fact overvalued. Nor can we appeal to a “deductive” or scientifically grounded form of hedonism (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. VI, p.177.). The psychophysical theories of Hamilton, Spencer, and others have serious flaws, especially in areas such as that of aesthetic pleasure.

Nevertheless, Sidgwick does not give up the project of empirical hedonism entirely, noting various ways – such as relying on a series of observations rather than one, or using common sense with caution (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. IV, s. III, pr. I, p.158)– in which we might arrive at “a rough approximation to the supposed truth” (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, book II, ch. III, s. VI, pr. II, p.147.). This conclusion of Sidgwick’s, and the discussion preceding it, exemplifies many of the virtues which made Sidgwick such a great moral philosopher: insight, open-mindedness, attention to detail, determination to pursue an argument and follow it where it leads, balance, and – perhaps most of all – common sense. There is a certain irony in the fact that Sidgwick – the great castigator of general common sense as a philosophical foundation – possessed it as a particular quality to such a remarkable degree.


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L'edonismo di Sidgwick (stesso articolo in italiano)

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