Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/April 1884/The Morality of Happiness IV




THERE is only one way of escape from the conclusion reached in our last—that conduct is good or bad according as its total effects are pleasurable or painful—in which statement be it understood the word total means total, and is not limited in its application to the person whose conduct is spoken of. If it is supposed that men were created to suffer, that a power which they were bound to obey had planned such suffering, so that any attempt either to take pleasure or to avoid pain was an offense, then of course the conclusion indicated is an erroneous one.

No system of religion has ever definitely taught so hideous a doctrine. Even where sorrow and suffering are recognized as the lot of man, and even where self-inflicted anguish and misery are enjoined as suitable ways of pleasing Deity, it is never said that such sufferings are the ultimate desire of the Supreme Power. These tribulations are all intended for our good: we are to torture ourselves here and now, that hereafter we may avoid much greater pains or enjoy much greater pleasures than here and now we could possibly experience.

Yet underlying this doctrine of greater and longer-lasting happiness as the result of temporary suffering or privation, there has been and is in many so-called religions the doctrine that pain and suffering are pleasing to the gods of inferior creeds and even to the Supreme Power of higher beliefs. The offerings made systematically by some races to their deities imply obviously the belief that the gods are pleased when men deprive themselves of something more or less valued. Sacrifices involving slaughter, whether of domestic animals or of human beings, mean more, for they imply that suffering and death are essentially pleasing to Deity. Even when such gross ideas are removed and religion has been purified, the symbolization of sacrifice in most cases takes the place of sacrifice itself. The conception may and often does remain as an actually vital part of religious doctrine that pleasure is offensive to the Supreme Power and pain pleasing.

If this conception is really recognized, and any men definitely hold that to enjoy or to give pleasure is sinful, because displeasing to God, while the suffering or infliction of pain is commendable, then for them—but for them only—the doctrine is not established that conduct is good or bad according as its total effects are pleasurable or painful. But if there are such men, then they are mentally and morally the direct descendants of the savage of most brutal type, who, because he himself delights to inflict pain, deems his gods to be of kindred nature and immolates victims to them (or, if necessary to gain his ends, shows the reality of his belief by self-torture) to obtain their assistance against his enemies.

If there are such men among us still, then, as Mr. Herbert Spencer says, "we can only recognize the fact that devil-worshipers are not yet extinct." The generality of our conclusions is no more affected by such exceptions as these than it is by the ideas which prevail in Bedlam or Earlswood.

But on the one hand the doctrine thus reached may be passed over as a truism (which it ought to be and indeed is, though, like many truisms, unrecognized); and on the other it may be scouted as Epicurean (which is unmeaning nonsense, however) and as mere pig-philosophy. For it sets happiness as the aim of conduct, and, whether self-happiness or the happiness of others is in question, many find in the mere idea of pleasure as a motive for conduct something unworthy—thereby unconsciously adopting the religious doctrine which has been justly compared with devil-worship.

This expression—Pig-philosophy—has indeed been applied to the doctrine we are considering, by a philosopher who, with Mr. Ruskin and Mr. Matthew Arnold, may be regarded as chief among the wonders of our age—and standing proof of the charm which the British race finds in Constant Grunt, Continual Growl, and Chronic Groan. It must be considered, therefore, as certain that to some minds a philosophy which sets the happiness of self and others as a worthy end must appear unworthy. Such minds find something pig-like in the desire to see the happiness of the world increased. Yet grunting and groaning are at least as characteristic of the porcine race as any desire to increase the comfort of their fellow-creatures or even their own. Mr. Herbert Spencer's lightsome pleasure-doctrine, the essence of which is that we should strive to diminish pain and sorrow (our own included) and to increase joy and happiness, is less suggestive of porcine ways (at least to those who have noted what such ways are) than for instance the following cheerful address to Man: "Despicable biped! what is the sum total of the worst that lies before thee? Death? Well, Death; and say the pangs of Tophet, too, and all that the Devil and Man may, will, or can do against thee! Hast thou not a heart; canst thou not suffer whatsoever it be; and, as a Child of Freedom, though outcast, trample Tophet itself under thy feet, while it consumes thee? "Were this but stern resolution to endure patiently, and even cheerfully, such sorrows as befall man, it were well. Nay, it would fall in with the philosophy of happiness, which enjoins that for their own sake as for the sake of those around them men should bear as lightly as they may their burden of inevitable sorrow. But what Carlyle calls the New-birth or Baphometic Fire-baptism is not Patience but Indignation and Defiance. This is the veritable Pig-philosophy: the "Everlasting No" (das ewige Nein) is in truth the Everlasting Grunt of dyspeptic disgust, the constant Oh-Goroo-Goroo of a jaundiced soul.

Are the teachings of living professors of the Everlasting Groan school brighter than those of the gloomy Scotsman? Here are some of the latest utterings of the chief among them: "Loss of life!" exclaims Mr. Ruskin, cheerfully. "By the ship overwhelmed in the river, shattered on the sea; by the mine's blast, the earthquake's burial you mourn for the multitude slain. You cheer the life-boat's crew; you hear with praise and joy the rescue of one still breathing body more at the pit's mouth; and all the while, for one soul that is saved from the momentary passing away (according to your creed, to be with its God), the lost souls yet locked in their polluted flesh haunt, with worse than ghosts, the shadows of your churches and the corners of your streets; and your weary children watch, with no memory of Jerusalem, and no hope of return from their captivity, the weltering to the sea of your Waters of Babylon." Oh! Goroo! Goroo-oo!

Any philosophy which hopes for other than misery and disgust in life must indeed seem strange doctrine to teachers such as these—even as the smiles of the cheerful seem unmeaning and offensive to those whose souls are overcast with gloom and discontent. Sir Walter Scott tells a story of his childhood which well illustrates the unreasoning hatred felt by the Everlasting Growl school for the doctrine that conduct should be directed to the increase of happiness. One day, his healthy young appetite made him enjoy very heartily the brose or porridge of the family breakfast. Unluckily, he was tempted to say aloud how good he found his food. His father at once ordered a pint of cold water to be thrown in, to spoil the taste of it! Possibly he meant to inculcate what he regarded as a high moral habit; but rather more probably Mr. Walter Scott, Sen., objected to his son's enjoying what he had no taste for himself. Much of the sourness of the Growl Philosophy may be thus interpreted.


We teach our children, the preacher tells his flock, but few follow the precept—Care more for others than for self. It sounds a harsh doctrine to say, instead—Each must care for himself before others. Yet it is not only true teaching, it is a self-evident truth. It would not be even worth saying, so obviously true is it, were it not that in putting aside the doctrine because of its seeming harshness men overlook, or try to overlook, the important consequences which follow from it.

If a man's whole soul—nay, let me speak for a moment in my proper person—if my whole soul were filled with the thought that my one chief business in life is to make those around me, as far as I can make my influence felt, as happy as possible, to increase in every possible way the stock of human (nay, also of animal) happiness, I must still begin by taking care of myself. For if, through want of care, I myself should cease to exist, I can no longer, in any way, serve others; nay, it is even conceivable that my immature disappearance from the scene of my proposed exertions for others' benefit might cause some diminution of the totality of happiness.

If the very thought of care for self should suggest that there can be no real love or care for others where self-care comes first (self-evident though the proposition be that care of self must come first), let us replace the case rejected as imaginary by a concrete and familiar illustration.

None can question the unselfishness of the love which a mother feels for her infant babe. None can doubt that, if question arose between the babe's life and hers, her own life would be willingly sacrificed. Of course there are exceptions, perhaps many, but no one can doubt, and multitudes of cases have proved, that the rule holds generally. Now, the nursing mother not only has, in her very love for her babe, to take care of herself, but to care for herself first, and to take more care of herself than, but for her pure, unselfish love for her child, she would have troubled herself to take.

Let this case suffice to show that care of self before others (not, therefore, necessarily more than others), besides being a self-evident duty (which many may regard as a mere trifle), may be not only perfectly consistent with regard for others, and even with devotion to others, but may be absolutely essential to the proper discharge of our duties toward others. In fact, it is little more than a truism, instead of being, as many would at a first view imagine, a paradox, that the more earnest our wish to increase the happiness of others, the more carefully must we look after our own welfare.

If we take a wider view, and, instead of considering a single life, study the development of families and races, we still find the same lesson. As the man who wishes his life to be useful to his fellows and to increase their happiness must take care of that life, so he who would wish to benefit humanity through his family or race must not only nourish his own life and strength, but must develop those activities which advance his own welfare and the welfare of his family. Otherwise come, inevitably, the dwindling of the faculties on which his own value depends, and the loss in his descendants of good qualities which they might otherwise have inherited from him. Or it may be that such qualities are inherited in less degree than had he duly exercised powers and capacities which were in a sense held in trust for them. "We are apt to overlook the importance of individual action in such cases, not noticing that the progress of a race depends on the aggregate of acts by the individual members of the race.

To take a concrete instance here, as of the simpler case: If a number of persons in any nation or at any epoch, impelled by a desire to benefit their fellows, devote their lives to celibacy, they influence in important degree the qualities of the next and succeeding generations. They diminish the proportion in which their personal qualities—presumably valuable—will appear in future generations, and relatively increase the proportion of other and less desirable qualities. This is obvious enough. It should, however, be almost as clear that, in whatever degree such persons in a community as possess the best qualities fail to advance, in all things just, their personal interests, they diminish the influence of the better qualities, not only in their own time, but in times to come. If, to take another concrete example, all persons of the better sort, forgetting their duties to themselves and their race, enter of set purpose on lives of poverty, asceticism, and dreariness, they not only diminish in large degree the good they might do during life, but they injure their offspring, and, through them, posterity.[1]

Under its biological aspect, then, the doctrine that care of self must necessarily take precedence of care and thought for others, is incontestable—it is the merest truism—though many speak, and some act, as if the doctrine were iniquitous. But this doctrine has its moral aspect also. The question of duty comes in at once and very obviously so soon as the actual consequences of conduct have been shown to be good or bad. But it may be well to show more definitely what the true line of duty is in regard to self. I shall, therefore, next consider cases where self-abnegation leads directly to the diminution of general happiness.—Knowledge.

  1. Many would probably be startled if a just estimate could be formed of the degree in which the qualities of the civilized races of the world have suffered through the well-meant but mistaken zeal which led large classes of men in former ages to sacrifice their power to do good in order to do good.