1902 Encyclopedia > Psychology > Do Pleasures Differ Qualitatively?

(Part 61)

(H) Feeling (cont.)

Do Pleasures Differ Qualitatively?

nBut there is still another and more serious difficulty to face. It has long been a burning question with theoretical moralists whether pleasures differ only quantitatively or differ qualitatively as well, whether psychological analysis will justify the common distinction of higher and lower pleasures or force us to recognize nothing but differences of degree, of duration, and so forth, -- as expounded, e.g., by Bentham, whose cynical mot, "Pushpin is as good as poetry provided it be as pleasant," was long stumbling-block in the way of utilitarianism. The entire issue here is confused by an ambiguity in terms that has been already noticed: pleasure and pleasures have not the same connotation. By a pleasure or pleasures we mean some assignable presentation or presentations which are pleasant, -- i.e., afford pleasure; by pleasure simply is mean this subjective state of feeling itself. The former, like other objects of knowledge, admit of classification and comparison; we may distinguish them as coarse or as noble, or, if we will, as cheap and wholesome. But, while the causes of feeling are manifold, the feeling itself is a subjective state, varying only in intensity and duration. The best evidence of this lies in the general character of the reactions that ensue through feelings, -- the matter which has next to engage us. Whatever be the variety in the sources of pleasure, whatever be the moral or consciousness is pleasant we seek to retain it, if painful to be rid of it: we prefer greater pleasure before less, less pain before greater. This is, in fact, the whole meaning of preference as a psychological term. Wisdom and folly prefer each the course which the other rejects. Both courses cannot, indeed, be objectively preferable; that, however, is not a matter for psychology. But as soon as reflexion begins, exceptions to this primary principle of action seem to arise continually, even though we regard the individual as a law to himself. Such exceptions, however, we may presently find to be apparent only. At any rate the principle is obviously true before reflexion begins, -- true so long as we are dealing with actually present sources of feelings, and not with their re-presentations. But to admit this psychologically to admit everything, at least if mind is to be genetically explained. Assuming, then, that we star with only quantitative variations of feeling, we have to attempt to explain the development of formal and qualitative differences in the grounds of feelings. But, if aversions and pursuits result from incommensurable states of pain and pleasure, there seems no other way of saving the unity and continuity of the subject exception by a speculative assumption, -- the doctrine known as the freedom of the will. The one position involves the other, and the more scientific course is to avoid both as far as we can.

The question, then, is : How, if action depends in the last resort on a merely quantitative difference, could it ever come about that what we call the higher sources of feeling should supersede the lower? If it is only quantity that turns the scales, where does quality come in, for we cannot say, e.g., that the astronomer experiences a greater thrill of delight when a new planet rewards his search than the hungry savage in finding a clump of pig-nuts? Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis answer better if we look at a parallel case, or what is really our own from another point of view. We distinguish between higher and lower forms of life: we might say there is more life in a large oyster than in a small one, other things being equal, but we should regard a crab as possessing not necessarily more life – as measured by waste of tissue – but certainly as manifesting life in a higher form. How, in the evolution of the animal kingdom, do we suppose this advance to have been made? The tendency at any one moment is simply towards more life, simply growth; but this process of self-preservation imperceptibly but steadily modifies the self that is preserved. The creature is bent only on filling its skin; but in doing this as easily as may be it gets a better skin to fill, and accordingly seeks to fill it differently. Though cabbage and honey are what they were before, they have changed relatively to the gulb now it has become a butterfly. So, while we are all along preferring a more pleasurable state of consciousness before a less, the content of our consciousness is continually changing; the greater pleasure still outweighs the less, but the pleasures to be weighed are either wholly different, or at least are the same for us no more. What we require, then, is not that the higher pleasures shall always afford greater pleasure than the lower did, but that to advance to the level of life on which pleasure is derived from higher objects shall on the whole be more pleasurable and less painful than to remain behind. And this condition seems provided in the fact of accommodation above referred to (p. 69) and in the important fact that attention can be more effectively expended by what we may therefore call improvements in the form of the field of consciousness. But when all is said and done a certain repugnance is apt to arise against any association of the differences between the higher and lower feelings with differences of quantity. Yet such repugnance is but another outcome of the common mistake of supposing that the real is obtained by pulling to pieces rather than by building up.

"Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?"

But no logical analysis – nay, further, no logical synthesis – is adequate to the fullness of things. For the rest, such aversion is wholly emotional, and has no

More an intellectual element in it than has the disgust we feel on first witnessing anatomical dissections. [Footnote 72-1]


72-1 "To look at anything in its elements makes it appear inferior to what it seems as a whole. Resolve the statue or the building into stone and the laws of proportion, and no worthy causes of the former beautiful result seem now left behind. So, also, resolve a virtuous act into the passions and some quantitative law, and it seems to be rather destroyed than analysed, though after all what was there else it could be resolved into?" Sir A. Grant, Aristotle’s Ethics, Essay IV., "The Doctrine of the Mean," vol. i. p. 210 (2d ed).

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