and how many go to the sum? All of how many is it, and when are we at the end? After death or in life? Do you mean a finite number? Then more is beyond. Do you mean an infinite number? Then we never reach it; for a further pleasure is conceivable, and nothing is infinite which has something still left outside of it. We must say, then, that no one ever reaches happiness. Or do you mean as much pleasure as a man can get? Then every one at every point is happy, and happiness is always complete, for, by the Hedonistic theory, we all of us get as much as we can.
The Hedonist has taken the universal in the sense of all the particulars, and in this sense, here as everywhere, since the particulars are arising and perishing, the universal has no truth nor reality. The true universal, which unconsciously he seeks, is infinite, for it is a concrete whole concluded within itself, and complete; but the false universal is infinite in the sense of a process ad indefinitum. It is a demand for, a would-be, completeness, with everlasting present incompleteness. It is always finite, and so never is realized. The sum is never finished; when the last pleasure is reached, we stand no nearer our end than at the first. It would be so, even if the pleasures did not die; but in addition the past pleasures have died; and we stand with heart
- I am anxious that the reader should not pass by this argument as a verbal puzzle. Beside it there is certainly much more to be said against Hedonism; but the root of Hedonism is not understood, until it is seen, (1) That pleasure, as such, is an abstraction (cf. Essay VII.); (2) That the sum of pleasures is a fiction. On this latter head I fear that I must further enlarge.
‘Get all you can’ is a familiar phrase, and is very good sense. I say to a boy, ‘Go into that room, and fetch out all the apples you can carry;’ and there is no nonsense in that. There is a given finite sum of apples, which I do not know, but which, under all the conditions, is the maximum. This is got and brought, and the task is accomplished. Why then not say, ‘Get all the pleasures you can’? For these reasons, (i) Let it be granted that there is a given finite sum of pleasures for the man to get; yet he never has got it. Only death puts an end to the work; and after death nothing, or the same unfinished task, (ii) There is really no such sum. A pleasure is only in the time during which I feel it. A past pleasure means either an idea, or another (secondary) impression. Itself is nothing at all: I did get it, I have not got it; and the ‘did get’ is not the pleasure. In order to have the sum of pleasures, I must have them all now, which is impossible. Thus you can not reach the end, and the effort to reach it is not in itself desirable. You may say, if you please, The end is an illusion, and the effort worthless in itself, but this particular effort gives a specific pleasure, which is the end. But if you do this, then you either (a) sink considerations of quantity, and the greatest happiness principle is given up; or (b) the same problem as above breaks out with respect to the sum of specific pleasures.
If you admit that to get the greatest sum in life is unmeaning, then arises the question, Can you approximate, and make approximation the end? I will not raise the question, Can you approximate to a confessed fiction? and to avoid that, let us say, The end is for me, at any given moment of life, to be having then the greatest possible number of units of pleasure. Here we fall into the dilemma given in the text. Either happiness is never reached, or there is no one who does not reach the most perfect happiness imaginable.
(i) If happiness means the greatest possible number of units, then I never reach it. Whatever I have is finite, and beyond every finite sum another unit is conceivable.
(ii) If happiness means having all I can get, no matter how much or how little, then, given the truth of the common Hedonistic psychology, every man at every moment has absolute happiness. This is very obvious. ‘Why so?’ comes the objection; ‘if Mr A. had done otherwise, he would have had more pleasure.’ ‘You mean,’ I answer, ‘If he had been Mr B.’ When, in ordinary language, we say, ‘He did not do what he could, or what was possible,’ we mean, ‘His energy did expend itself in this direction, failed to do so in that,’ and we impute inability as a fault, where it is the result of previous misdirection [p. 42]. But the common Hedonist can not say this, because, according to him, there is only one possible direction of expenditure, i.e. the greatest seeming pleasure. You have no choice between pleasure and something else, you can do nothing but gravitate to what seems most pleasant, and you can not alter what seems except by your will, i.e. by gravitation to what seems most pleasant. Every one has done his conceivable utmost to approximate, and therefore is absolutely happy.
I think the better plan for the Hedonist would be to make happiness a fixed finite sum, which can be got, and beyond which nothing counts; and similarly to fix an unhappiness point on the scale; but we have pursued the subject far enough.
The question of the approximative character of all morality will be discussed in another place.