The creed which accepts as the foundation of morals, Utility, or the Greatest Happiness
Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness,
wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended
pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.
To give a clear view of the moral standard set up by the theory, much more requires to
be said; in particular, what things it includes in the ideas of pain and pleasure; and to
what extent this is left an open question. But these supplementary explanations do not
affect the theory of life on which this theory of morality is grounded — namely, that
pleasure, and freedom from pain, are the only things desirable as ends; and that all
desirable things (which are as numerous in the utilitarian as in any other scheme) are
desirable either for the pleasure inherent in themselves, or as means to the promotion
of pleasure and the prevention of pain.
Now, such a theory of life excites in many minds, and among them in some of the most
estimable in feeling and purpose, inveterate dislike. To suppose that life has (as they
express it) no higher end than pleasure — no better and nobler object of desire and
pursuit — they designate as utterly mean and grovelling; as a doctrine worthy only of
swine, to whom the followers of Epicurus were, at a very early period, contemptuously
likened; and modern holders of the doctrine are occasionally made the subject of
equally polite comparisons by its German, French, and English assailants.
When thus attacked, the Epicureans have always answered, that it is not they, but their
accusers, who represent human nature in a degrading light; since the accusation
supposes human beings to be capable of no pleasures except those of which swine are
capable. If this supposition were true, the charge could not be gainsaid, but would then
be no longer an imputation; for if the sources of pleasure were precisely the same to
human beings and to swine, the rule of life which is good enough for the one would be
good enough for the other. The comparison of the Epicurean life to that of beasts is felt
as degrading, precisely because a beast’s pleasures do not satisfy a human being’s
conceptions of happiness. Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal
appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as
happiness which does not include their gratification. I do not, indeed, consider the
Epicureans to have been by any means faultless in drawing out their scheme of
consequences from the utilitarian principle. To do this in any sufficient manner, many
Stoic, as well as Christian elements require to be included. But there is no known
Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the
feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as
pleasures than to those of mere sensation. It must be admitted, however, that utilitarian
writers in general have placed the superiority of mental over bodily pleasures chiefly in
the greater permanency, safety, uncostliness, etc., of the former — that is, in their
circumstantial advantages rather than in their intrinsic nature. And on all these points
utilitarians have fully proved their case; but they might have taken the other, and, as it
may be called, higher ground, with entire consistency. It is quite compatible with the
principle of utility to recognise 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.
Now it is an unquestionable fact that those who are equally acquainted with, and equally
capable of appreciating and enjoying, both, do give a most marked preference to the
manner of existence which employs their higher faculties. Few human creatures would
consent to be changed into any of the lower animals, for a promise of the fullest
allowance of a beast’s pleasures; no intelligent human being would consent to be a fool,
no instructed person would be an ignoramus, no person of feeling and conscience
would be selfish and base, even though they should be persuaded that the fool, the
dunce, or the rascal is better satisfied with his lot than they are with theirs. They would
not resign what they possess more than he for the most complete satisfaction of all the
desires which they have in common with him. If they ever fancy they would, it is only in
cases of unhappiness so extreme, that to escape from it they would exchange their lot
for almost any other, however undesirable in their own eyes. A being of higher faculties
requires more to make him happy, is capable probably of more acute suffering, and
certainly accessible to it at more points, than one of an inferior type; but in spite of these
liabilities, he can never really wish to sink into what he feels to be a lower grade of
existence. We may give what explanation we please of this unwillingness; we may
attribute it to pride, a name which is given indiscriminately to some of the most and to
some of the least estimable feelings of which mankind are capable: we may refer it to
the love of liberty and personal independence, an appeal to which was with the Stoics
one of the most effective means for the inculcation of it; to the love of power, or to the
love of excitement, both of which do really enter into and contribute to it: but its most
appropriate appellation is a sense of dignity, which all human beings possess in one
form or other, and in some, though by no means in exact, proportion to their higher
faculties, and which is so essential a part of the happiness of those in whom it is strong,
that nothing which conflicts with it could be, otherwise than momentarily, an object of
desire to them.
Whoever supposes that this preference takes place at a sacrifice of happiness — that
the superior being, in anything like equal circumstances, is not happier than the inferior
— confounds the two very different ideas, of happiness, and content. It is indisputable
that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low, has the greatest chance of
having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any
happiness which he can look for, as the world is constituted, is imperfect. But he can
learn to bear its imperfections, if they are at all bearable; and they will not make him
envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections, but only because he
feels not at all the good which those imperfections qualify. It is better to be a human
being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool
satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, are a different opinion, it is because they only know
their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.
It may be objected, that many who are capable of the higher pleasures, occasionally,
under the influence of temptation, postpone them to the lower. But this is quite
compatible with a full appreciation of the intrinsic superiority of the higher. Men often,
from infirmity of character, make their election for the nearer good, though they know it
to be the less valuable; and this no less when the choice is between two bodily
pleasures, than when it is between bodily and mental. They pursue sensual indulgences
to the injury of health, though perfectly aware that health is the greater good.
It may be further objected, that many who begin with youthful enthusiasm for everything
noble, as they advance in years sink into indolence and selfishness. But I do not believe
that those who undergo this very common change, voluntarily choose the lower
description of pleasures in preference to the higher. I believe that before they devote
themselves exclusively to the one, they have already become incapable of the other.
Capacity for the nobler feelings is in most natures a very tender plant, easily killed, not
only by hostile influences, but by mere want of sustenance; and in the majority of young
persons it speedily dies away if the occupations to which their position in life has
devoted them, and the society into which it has thrown them, are not favourable to
keeping that higher capacity in exercise. Men lose their high aspirations as they lose
their intellectual tastes, because they have not time or opportunity for indulging them;
and they addict themselves to inferior pleasures, not because they deliberately prefer
them, but because they are either the only ones to which they have access, or the only
ones which they are any longer capable of enjoying. It may be questioned whether any
one who has remained equally susceptible to both classes of pleasures, ever knowingly
and calmly preferred the lower; though many, in all ages, have broken down in an
ineffectual attempt to combine both.
From this verdict of the only competent judges, I apprehend there can be no appeal. On
a question which is the best worth having of two pleasures, or which of two modes of
existence is the most grateful to the feelings, apart from its moral attributes and from its
consequences, the judgment of those who are qualified by knowledge of both, or, if they
differ, that of the majority among them, must be admitted as final. And there needs be
the less hesitation to accept this judgment respecting the quality of pleasures, since
there is no other tribunal to be referred to even on the question of quantity. What means
are there of determining which is the acutest of two pains, or the intensest of two
pleasurable sensations, except the general suffrage of those who are familiar with both?
Neither pains nor pleasures are homogeneous, and pain is always heterogeneous with
pleasure. What is there to decide whether a particular pleasure is worth purchasing at
the cost of a particular pain, except the feelings and judgment of the experienced?
When, therefore, those feelings and judgment declare the pleasures derived from the
higher faculties to be preferable in kind, apart from the question of intensity, to those of
which the animal nature, disjoined from the higher faculties, is suspectible, they are
entitled on this subject to the same regard.
I have dwelt on this point, as being a necessary part of a perfectly just conception of
Utility or Happiness, considered as the directive rule of human conduct. But it is by no
means an indispensable condition to the acceptance of the utilitarian standard; for that
standard is not the agent’s own greatest happiness, but the greatest amount of
happiness altogether; and if it may possibly be doubted whether a noble character is
always the happier for its nobleness, there can be no doubt that it makes other people
happier, and that the world in general is immensely a gainer by it. Utilitarianism,
therefore, could only attain its end by the general cultivation of nobleness of character,
even if each individual were only benefited by the nobleness of others, and his own, so
far as happiness is concerned, were a sheer deduction from the benefit. But the bare
enunciation of such an absurdity as this last, renders refutation superfluous.
According to the Greatest Happiness Principle, as above explained, the ultimate end,
with reference to and for the sake of which all other things are desirable (whether we
are considering our own good or that of other people), is an existence exempt as far as
possible from pain, and as rich as possible in enjoyments, both in point of quantity and
quality; the test of quality, and the rule for measuring it against quantity, being the
preference felt by those who in their opportunities of experience, to which must be
added their habits of self-consciousness and self-observation, are best furnished with
the means of comparison. This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of
human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be
defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an
existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible,
secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits,
to the whole sentient creation.