The Common Sense of Political Economy
By Philip H. Wicksteed
Philip H. Wicksteed (1844-1927) wrote the
The Common Sense of Political Economy, Including a Study of the Human Basis of Economic Law (Macmillan and Co., Limited, St. Martin’s Street, London) in 1910.The edition presented here is the first edition, which was widely used as an economics textbook in classrooms in the United Kingdom and the United States, and probably elsewhere as well.A few corrections of obvious typos were made for this website edition. We also added occasional parentheses or square brackets to mathematical expressions for clarity [this was necessary in cases where the requirements of browsers to print fractions with a solidus (“/”) causes potential confusion when the entire fraction is to be multiplied by a subsequent factor:
e.g., to distinguish (1/2
x) versus (1/2)
x]. However, because the original edition was so internally consistent and carefully proofread, we have erred on the side of caution, allowing some typos to remain lest someone doing academic research wishes to follow up. We have changed some small caps to full caps for ease of using search engines.Editor
Library of Economics and Liberty
First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
The text of this edition is in the public domain.
EXCURSIVE AND CRITICAL
Cum rerum natura nusquam magis quam in minimis tota sit.
Nowhere is the nature of things more intimately revealed than in the calculus of infinitesimals.
MARGINS AND THEIR DIAGRAMMATIC REPRESENTATION
This chapter is devoted to a fuller examination of the principle of declining marginal significances. It is always the provocatives, opportunities, or supports of desired experiences or vents of impulse, and never those experiences themselves, that this law illustrates; but within that area it seems to be universal. It may appear, at first sight, that the claims of duty, of faith, or of humanity are not (or at least should not be) subject to any declining urgency as they are more fully met; and also that some satisfactions are habitually indulged in down to the point of satiety, whereas, according to our theory, the last and least significant increments of the things that minister to them should be less valued than increments of other things that would minister to still unsatisfied wants. But a careful examination will shew that these objections either rest on some misapprehension or are due to the fact that, under any given set of conditions, there is always a “minimum sensibile” below which conscious estimates cannot be carried. Another set of difficulties arises from a confusion between the positive and negative sign of increments of satisfaction and a positive or negative state of satisfaction. The attempt to dispel this confusion, in connection with the diagrammatic method, leads us to an examination of the reactions of various kinds of indulgence upon the organism itself and its future capacities for enjoyment. This again leads to the discovery of interesting relations between a hedonistic calculus and current moral judgments. Our method, however, does not imply a hedonistic theory of conduct. The chapter closes with some notes on the dangers and limitations of the diagrammatic method it has introduced.
The whole structure raised in the First Book of this treatise rests upon the principle of declining marginal significance as supplies increase; and though we have established and illustrated it with sufficient firmness and accuracy for the immediate purposes of that Book, yet a number of problems to which no precise answers have been given may well present themselves to the reflective reader; and the extreme importance of the principle itself makes it desirable that it should be investigated and tested, not only in its immediate applications to economic problems, but in its fuller scope. Any misgiving as to its general validity might throw a taint of suspicion on its special applications. Moreover, we shall find that the closer investigation upon which we are now to enter will throw much light upon the connection between the narrower problems of Economics and the broader problems of Sociology; or perhaps we might say, between commercial Economics and the true Political Economy, in the sense of the economy of the
polis, or regulation of the resources of the community.
Let us begin by noting that in speaking of declining significance we are never dealing with the ultimately desired experiences themselves, but always with something that we value as likely to produce such experiences. Thus, we spoke of concerts which a man wishes to attend because he thinks he will derive enjoyment from them; and we saw that, other things being equal, he would value a fifth concert per week less than a fourth. We did not say that a fifth “unit of enjoyment of music” would be less valuable to him than a fourth, for our only conception of a unit of enjoyment must be a quantity of enjoyment which equals some standard amount; so that each unit, being equal to the standard, would be equal to every other unit, and to say that the fifth unit was of less value than the fourth would be to say that two amounts were equal to the same but not equal to each other. Indeed it would obviously be nonsense to say that equally desired experiences have a declining significance, for if their significance declines they are not equally desired. In the same way, if we declare that opportunities of study have a declining value to a man, we may mean that if he has twelve hours a day clear for study he will attach less value to a thirteenth hour than he would to a fifth hour if he had only four; but we can hardly mean that successive acquisitions of a unit of information have a declining value, for we can hardly define a unit of information; and we cannot mean that successive increments of the pleasure or advantage he derives from the results of his study have declining value, for our only conception of equal increments of satisfaction must be increments that have the same value. And so throughout. So we are never speaking, in this connection, of units of experience, which (if we can form any conception of them at all) must be regarded as equal, but of units objectively measurable, roughly or accurately—whether by time, space, weight, number, or otherwise,—which are valued for the sake of the states of consciousness they are expected to produce or the vent they afford to impulses.
What we assert, then, is that after a certain point successive increments of external stimulants, or opportunities, produce successively declining increments of the desired internal experiences. And this principle applies not only to things provocative of delight to the senses, but to means of artistic and literary enjoyment, and even to opportunities for securing the satisfactions, or obeying the impulses, of friendship or affection. But it is sometimes asked, “Is not the case different when questions of duty are concerned? Does not duty always remain paramount, however much of your powers and resources you have already devoted to its demands? And are not the claims of compassion always superior to those of selfishness, however much you may have indulged the former and starved the latter? Is it possible for a well-regulated mind to bring about a marginal coincidence of value between the means of satisfying desires which are on essentially different ethical levels? Can such qualitative distinctions be reduced to questions of quantity?” That they are so reduced, it will be admitted, is a fact (whether lamentable or not), and in dealing with ordinary humanity we might be safe enough in assuming that such a reduction would take place; but when we find that the martyr who has borne the rack is ready to be burnt to death sooner than depart a hair’s breadth from the formula of his confession, we seem to have reached a region to which this law of diminishing significance does not apply. However much the martyr has given to his faith and however little he has kept for his comfort, it would appear that the escape from no quantity of physical anguish, however great, will weigh against any concession in the matter of faith, however small.
Such questions may seem to take us very far from our proper subject, and so indeed they do, and it is for this reason that they have been excluded from consideration at an earlier period. But I have maintained from first to last that the laws of Economics are the laws of life, and consequently if a law declares itself to be paramount on the economic field, it proclaims itself by implication as a general law of life and conduct. It may therefore be legitimately challenged on any field, and if it cannot hold its own everywhere it must at least lie under suspicion in its economic applications. In any case, a closer inspection of our general principle, in other applications, is almost certain to throw light upon the special applications in which we are most interested. To begin with, then, it is not only consistent with our theory of “prices,” but is actually involved in it, that to any man, at any given time, there
may be some alternative so horrible that sooner than accept it he would endure all the physical and mental torment that can possibly be inflicted on him. This does not necessarily mean that he does not feel the torture, though even that might be the case, but it means that the whole sum of torture which he is capable of enduring before his frame cracks will not be enough to overcome his shrinking from the only alternative open. Something must give way first, and if his resolve, or his aversion, is stronger than his physical vitality, the tissues of his frame will be disintegrated or his vital functions unhinged before his choice is reversed.
History shews that these conditions have from time to time arisen; and we contemplate with awe the heroes who have supplied the demonstration. We probably think that few people could rise to this pitch of heroism in any cause; but, on the other hand, it is no more than we have a right to expect of every normal human being, living a normal life, that there should be certain things which he would not do for any amount of money, however large; perhaps because he regards the actions as detestable or dishonourable, perhaps only because he regards them as intensely disagreeable. This only means that to him the total difference between the command of things in the circle of exchange that he already enjoys, and an indefinite or unlimited command of them, does not weigh as heavy in his mind as the dishonour or the discomfort of the specific thing that he is required to do. It does not mean that his objection is “infinite.” It merely means that it is larger than his estimate of all the satisfaction that he could derive from unlimited command of articles in the circle of exchange, and this is a strictly, perhaps narrowly, limited quantity.
These considerations, it is true, do not completely satisfy us; for they would seem to imply that although the offer of money may not be enough to make an honourable man do a dishonourable action, yet if he is in want of money at all the offer must tend in the direction of making him do it, so that raising the bribe would strengthen the temptation. If it is true, as we have said, that every force tells for all that it is worth whatever other forces are already on the field, would it not follow that if a man is in want of money the offer of money must tell for what it is worth, whatever other motives actuate him? And if so, must he not be nearer to doing the dishonourable action (though he does not do it) than he would have been had the bribe not been offered to him? And if the bribe is raised (so long as he would still value the increased sum), must not the tendency to make him do the dishonourable thing become more marked? Or in the case of the martyr, if he shrinks from pain at all, must not the infliction of greater and greater degrees of pain tend to make him renounce his faith, though the inducement is not high enough actually to bring about the renunciation? It is true that there is nothing in these conclusions that greatly shocks our general experience or observation. We hear men say, “I confess I was almost tempted by the prospect, for a moment,” or “It required all my resolution to hold out, I can assure you,” when they are speaking of actions the commission of which would have filled them afterwards with shame and self-contempt. But nevertheless we can by no means admit that every man can be at any rate tempted, though not seduced, by a bribe, or shaken, though not broken, in his resolution by torture. We are certain that this is not even approximately true as to the bribe, and we cannot believe that it is completely and universally true as to torture.
On this we may note, in the first place, that the very offer of the bribe or application of the torture may wake resisting forces which were dormant before.
*1 I might be considering whether or not an action was really dishonourable before the bribe was offered, and as soon as a bribe is proposed I may have a conclusive reason for associating it with dishonour. Or again, if a man offers me half a crown for doing or saying something I may be contemptuously amused, but if he offers me £1000 I may be deeply insulted. For I might take the first proposal as a naive attempt to overcome my inertia, but the second as revealing a serious intention of finding out the price at which I would sell my honour. Thus the increased inducement might itself touch the spring of increased resistance. If the briber can contrive to associate his material offer not with dishonour but with some appearance of honour, and can make his insult take the semblance of a tribute of respect, it will perhaps be found that £1000 does indeed weigh more than 2s. 6d. in the scale. But even here a finer perception might detect the finer insult, and might resent it the more deeply for its deliberate subtlety.
But there is something deeper even than this, and its examination will lead us back to our economic and commercial investigations. Just as it is very easy to suppose that a man could tell the difference between a half-pound and a quarter-pound weight by trying them in his hand, but very difficult to suppose that he could tell the difference between 14 stone and 14 stone plus a quarter of a pound by lifting them in a basket, so it is very easy to imagine a man’s refusing to give 1s. for a thing that he would be glad to have for 6d., but very difficult to imagine him willing to give £1000 for some object but refusing to give £1000:0:6 for it. That is to say, 6d. is appreciable when the whole matter at issue is only 1s., but inappreciable when the matter at issue is £1000. It is a case of proportion. When the stake is of any given magnitude there is a certain
minimum sensibile or minutest quantity that can be felt or appreciated in connection with it; and this
minimum sensibile will vary with the magnitude of the thing at issue. The same principle applies in the moral world. When my feelings are deeply moved and I am vividly realising any one of the main issues of life, things to which I should give careful attention on other occasions do not affect me in the least. The mind does not readily adapt itself at one and the same time to the higher and the lower end of the scale. When it is experiencing great things it is not sensitive to small ones. When some grave disturbance of equilibrium has occurred or is threatened, or some vast issue is at stake, small things are not felt. Only if the great things were secure and had not recently been disturbed would the small things be able to assert themselves as significant. If I hear of the sudden and unexpected death of a dear relative and immediately begin to speculate about his will, why am I ashamed of myself? Because I had imagined that my affection for him was so great that immediately on the news of his death the significance of a few hundred or thousand pounds would have sunk below the
minimum sensibile. And when I find that it is not so, I perceive that I have given myself credit for a higher appreciation of the things that are not in the circle of exchange, relatively to those that are, than I really possess. It is a startled sense of my own sordidness that brings my shame. It is not that I believe I ought not to care whether I have or have not the sum of money, but that I should have supposed that at that moment there would have been no room in my mind for such a thought, any more than for the fit of my trousers, or any other subject of consideration in itself perfectly proper but not sufficiently important to claim a share of my attention at the moment. I might experience the same kind of shock if, in catching up a child wounded by a passing dog-cart or motor-car, I found myself annoyed because my cuffs were stained or my clothes damaged by his blood. And the proof that this correctly represents the psychology of the case is that if the question of the legacy or of the stained cuff merely presented itself to me externally but failed to touch the springs of interest or emotion, if it were a mere shadowy presence with no weight or “tactile value,” I should note it as something strange, but should not feel it as anything shameful. The same analysis applies to occasions on which some great happiness comes to a friend accompanied by a slight incidental inconvenience or disappointment to oneself. The examination of such cases reveals the possibility of any given consideration sinking beneath the
minimum sensibile, but it also reveals the fact that in an enormous number of such instances the feeling or the motive that we neglect without one moment’s hesitation is nevertheless actually felt. It is negligible, but if we look for it, it is there. It does weigh something, but it does not for a moment threaten to turn the scale.
Returning now to the martyr or the “incorruptible,” we see that it is perfectly possible for the extremest pressure that can be brought to bear upon either to be quite negligible, so that it would no more be recognised as a reason (even an inadequate one) for doing the abominable thing than fear of staining my cuffs would be recognised as a reason against helping a wounded child. And it may be that it is not only negligible and practically unrecognized, but absolutely imperceptible even when we look for it. There is ample room for these facts within the limits of our theory.
Another point suggests itself for consideration in connection with moral questions. There is much confusion and ambiguity in our use of the word “duty.” I may say that no personal or private considerations however urgent ought to affect the performance of my duty, even in the minutest point; but I shall not allow that I ought to leave a burglar despatching his business in my house rather than be a minute late at the office. “Of course not,” it will be said, “because it is your obvious duty to protect your family, to say nothing of your property.” Apparently, then, it is my “duty” to attend to whatever I conscientiously consider the most important matter at stake; and to say that nothing should interfere with duty simply means that I ought to do the thing, whatever it is, which a high-minded man would regard as most important. Certain family claims which are not “duty” in a general way become so when they reach a certain point of urgency; and when satisfied down to a certain point they will again cease to be duty. In this sense “duty” is not a label which is attached to certain classes of action and not to others, giving precedence to the smallest volume of that to which it is attached over the largest volume of everything else. It is a name we give to the resultant course of action when every consideration has been given its due weight and no more, and nothing that is irrelevant has been allowed to weigh at all. And we shall generally find, on analysing any dilemma, that the dictum “Duty before all things” is only maintained by giving the name of “duty” to whatever, under the circumstances, properly comes first; and that our determination on this point is influenced both by the terms on which the alternatives are offered to us and by the extent to which we have already paid tribute to the one or the other claim. The label can only be attached after the conclusion is reached, and cannot indicate any short cut by which to reach it. If I insist on allowing no weight to any considerations that cannot be labelled “duty” in advance, I shall generally find that I must include in my “duties” not only my duty to my family and to my friends, but also that trump-card of the casuist, my “duty to myself.” And I shall find myself speaking of a “conflict of duties,” thereby implying that duty itself is a quantitative conception. It is of course true that if we are to allow no more than its due weight to a certain consideration we shall often allow it no weight at all, because it is irrelevant. If I am asked, for instance, to arrange a number of candidates in order of merit, I shall probably regard it as absolutely irrelevant to the matter in hand that a widowed mother is dependent on the success of one candidate, while another is a man of property himself and has no one dependent upon him, or that I am attached to one and am repelled by the moral character of another, or that I believe that success will react prejudicially on the character of one and favourably on that of another. And if I take this view, then undoubtedly it is my duty not to give any weight to considerations that ought not to weigh, and it may or may not require some heroism on my part to act up to my convictions; that is to say, the temptation may tempt or it may not, as in the cases already noted. Or I may find that the real temptation is to incline to the verdict counter to my wishes, in order that I may escape the reproach of having been influenced by them. We may note that it is usual to protect examiners, as far as possible, from all knowledge of facts that are to be regarded as irrelevant; and this shews that the difficulty of ignoring them, if known, is generally recognised.
On the other hand, if I am making an appointment I may think that some or all of these considerations are relevant, and in that case it may be my duty carefully to appraise them all and weigh them against each other. When we have admitted that considerations of extreme strength in their personal appeal may be wholly irrelevant, and ought not to be realised as motives at all, even if they are felt, we shall have done full justice to the absolute conception of duty; but it is interesting to note how very many cases there are in which we are inclined at first to regard a consideration as irrelevant in principle, but find on close examination that a mere quantitative change in the things considered, if sufficiently pronounced, appears to us to raise the irrelevant into relevancy. In any case, our theory only asserts that when a consideration that “ought” not to weigh at all does as a matter of fact weigh—that is to say, is felt as a temptation—it may be felt more or less according to the magnitude and urgency of the issues at stake.
It is highly instructive to turn from the objection to the doctrine of declining significance which we have just examined to another which is quite as frequently urged. It is said that the whole theory of distributing our resources so as to gratify our wants
pari passu and keep the marginal wants balanced, is false to fact and experience. The truth is, it is said, that there are certain things that we “must have,” and we get “as much as we want” of them before we begin to consider less urgent requirements at all. For instance, we all eat as much as we want several times a day, and do not stop short of satisfaction because our desire for literature or travel is unsatisfied. Now to begin with, this is obviously an argument of the well-to-do. It is flagrantly untrue of the very poor that they get as much food as they want before they begin to trouble about keeping up their supply of clothes.
*2 We have already spoken of the thousands of young people, well above the line of actual want, who in managing their own slender resources consciously and constantly bring their meal to a conclusion at a penn’orth or two penn’orth short of satisfaction in order to advance some other margin. In its crude form the whole contention that we are examining is palpably false. Where do we or can we find in civilized society the man who gets as much food as he wants “before” he gets any clothes or any shelter? All that can be seriously maintained is that if a man’s resources are sufficient to provide him with a certain amount of the things he needs most urgently, including food, he will soon come to points in every other branch of his expenditure at which he will be content to rest until he has completely satisfied his desire for food as far as mere quantity, apart from quality, goes.
In the contention so formulated there is a great deal of truth, but it need not disturb our confidence in our general theory. Any one who has tried saving pence out of his meals by restricting them in quantity, not quality, will know that the significance of these pence rises very rapidly as they are successively withdrawn. A halfpenny-worth of bread (two thick slices of a half-quartern loaf) may carry a man from a sharp sense of hunger to a sense of satiety. To save 3d. a week on bread might involve a very considerable volume of unpleasant experiences, and therefore, unless the 3d. would minister (as in Cobbett’s case) to very keenly felt wants in other directions, it would be bad husbandry to save it. “Yes,” it may be said, “but by your theory to save 1½d. a week would involve less than half the sacrifice of saving 3d. a week, and its expenditure on something else would secure more than half the gratification of three pennyworth; and since by hypothesis the expenditure on bread is taken down to a point at which it ceases to have any significance at all, there must be some small quantity
*3 of the resources expended upon it that could be profitably turned elsewhere.” This is theoretically true as far as it goes; but theory also tells us that this adjustment would be an exceedingly delicate matter, and that it might demand an amount of attention and exercise of will that could be more profitably employed somewhere else where it would have a higher marginal significance.
We have now examined two attempts to invalidate the general principle on which, as I have maintained, we administer our resources. It has been contended both that the sense of duty
ought to be completely satisfied down to the last and minutest demand, and that the appetite for food
actually is so satisfied, before anything else is attended to at all. The collocation of these two contentions is amusing; and before we leave them we may note that the sense of duty and the desire for food may become direct rivals. In that case I may perhaps cheerfully go without a meal at the call of “duty”; but presently I shall find that it has become my imperative “duty” to suspend the direct performance of my “duty” for a short time in order that I may eat something to enable me to perform my “duty” more strenuously (or to perform it at all) afterwards; and the graduated formulæ of “it is an imperative duty,” “I almost think it is a duty,” “I really think that without any dereliction of duty I may allow myself,” etc., ease the (in this case)
difficilis descensus from the pretentious heights of absolutism to the
avernus (shall we call it?) of practical relativity.
Another and closely related aspect of the question of declining significances is suggested by charitable appeals. For instance, there is a famine in India, and I subscribe a guinea. That would appear at first sight to mean that I consider the want of food in India more urgent than any other wants of my own or any one else’s to which the guinea would have ministered. But if so, why not give a second guinea? Has the want in India been sensibly reduced by my subscription? In bulk, yes. But in intensity? Even if I could suppose that my guinea had met the most urgent case, would there be any perceptible decline of urgency in the next case waiting to be met? It is exactly the question of the increments of tea over again. We saw that there was no perceptible decrease in the significance of tea as we passed from one quarter-ounce to the next at the margin of 4 lbs., though there was a perceptible satisfaction in the consumption of either.
*5 So I must suppose that a perceptible relief of suffering has been effected by my guinea, but I can hardly believe that a second guinea would relieve suffering perceptibly less intense than that relieved by the first. The marginal significance of a guinea, then, in relieving distress in India, appears to remain the same. Why do I not pay a second guinea and a third, and so on? The answer is twofold. In the first place, in the majority of cases it is not really the famine in India but my own conscience that I am appeasing, and my own conscience becomes perceptibly less clamorous after the first guinea has been paid. It may still grumble, and dispute the ground with other applications, but it may no longer dispute it successfully. My conscience may be right or wrong in insisting that I should take a share in the burden, and in being appeased when I tell it I have done so; but that is not the question. The point is that the demand I am meeting is, as a matter of fact, perceptibly reduced by what I have done to meet it. It is otherwise, however, if I really am directly appraising the urgency of the want that my guinea relieves when given to the famine fund, and the wants it can supply in other applications. In this case it is true that the want in India does not perceptibly decline as I give guinea after guinea, but it is also true that the wants that I neglect in order to meet it perceptibly rise as guinea after guinea is subtracted from the supply of them, until at last they rise to the level at which they balance my sense of the urgency of the need in India. This point may not be reached till I have reduced myself and all those dependent upon me to the level of misery of those that I am relieving; and some moralists are courageous enough to hold this up as an ideal. Our theory of marginal significance is elastic enough to adapt itself to their creed; for all that we assert is that, whatever the grounds on which we form estimates of the relative significance of rival applications of resources, we can so administer those resources as to bring their marginal significance in each application to equality. The urgency of the Indian claim is no doubt gradually declining if the administration of the fund is even approximately sound; but within the limits of the influence of my fortune it does not decline perceptibly. The balance is therefore found when all other expenditures are curtailed to the point at which their rising marginal significance equals that of the Indian claim.
Curious light is thrown on this class of problems by the added joy and relief which is not unfrequently felt by the recipient of a present that comes with the condition that it is to be spent on a holiday or on some personal indulgence. Presumably the recipient, if free, would have spent the sum as he wished. Why is he pleased at being forbidden to do what he would have wished? Because it is the sense of his duty to do the thing, not his sense of the importance of the thing’s being done, that would have successfully contested the first place; and his “sense of duty” is entirely extinguished by the prohibition. The demand that would have had to be appeased before the other could be indulged is withdrawn from the lists, and the indulgence can be secured without a drop of gall. A goad has been blunted, and the hedonistic gain is obvious. In cases where this analysis would be untrue and where the wish to do something else with the money is really inspired by the eagerness of direct sympathy, the restriction would be actually felt, and perhaps resented, as a reduction in the value of the gift. Perhaps by the painful associations it waked it would altogether annul it or leave a balance to the bad.
We have now concluded our examination of the class of objections to the law of diminishing psychic returns which is based on the absolutism of ethical or social conceptions; but in the course of these investigations we have been incidentally led to contrast a demand or craving that has to be appeased with an enjoyment that may be secured. This opens in its entirety the important subject of positive and negative satisfactions, their relations to each other, and the proper notation to be employed in their calculus; and to this subject we must now turn.
If we regard pain as negative pleasure, and discomfort as negative satisfaction, then a supply of anything that gradually relieves me from acute suffering leaves me in a state of (decreasing) negative satisfaction throughout the process. But the reduction in the volume of this negative satisfaction, which is taking place all the time, is a movement in the positive, not the negative sense. It is an addition, not a subtraction, of desired effects; for it is a subtraction of undesired experiences. The acquisition, therefore, is a positive quantity, and must be noted by a plus, not a minus sign. Here we may introduce the familiar notation of curves. On
Fig. 1 we measure the supply of any commodity per unit of time along the line
OX, or the axis of
X; and on
OY, or the axis of
Y, we measure rates of satisfaction. Thus the curve
pp1x2 would represent that the initial increment of the commodity per unit of time satisfies some kind of desire at the rate of
Op per unit of commodity; that by the time the supply is increased to
Ox1 the rate at which it is satisfying desire has risen to
Oy1, and that when the supply reaches
Ox2 per unit of time, the desire is completely satisfied. The quantities measured along
OX, which are called abscissas, indicate the breadth of the supply per unit of time, or the breadth of the stream of supply. Quantities measured along
OY, which are called ordinates, indicate the marginal values investigated on pages 47-71 of Book I.,
*6 and areas such as
Opp1x1 sums of satisfaction per unit of time, secured by the consumption per unit of time of the quantity of the commodity indicated by the corresponding abscissa. Generally speaking, such an area must (as we have here supposed) itself be taken as representing a rate of total enjoyment per unit of time, rather than a sum of total enjoyment;
*7 but sometimes it will be convenient to take the whole figure as representing not a rate of consumption, but a single act. And in such cases we shall take
x1p1 as representing the marginal value, and the area
Opp1x1 as representing the “value in use” or total significance of the definite quantity
Ox1. For instance, the figure might roughly represent the experiences of a single meal, during which for a time “the appetite comes as we eat” and we are conscious of increasing enjoyment, whereas after that point our hunger is gradually appeased to the point of satiety.
Now this diagrammatic method is useful as an instrument of research, as a means of demonstration and exposition, and, most of all, as a vivid and comprehensive form of statement. But it is very dangerous, and if not used with due caution and precision it may lead to grave confusion and may encourage loose and irresponsible thought. In the next chapter, accordingly, we shall examine the construction of one particular curve in great detail; and whenever we make use of curves we must try to bear in mind the necessity of giving an exact account of what they mean, so that the results obtained may not be in any way equivocal. The necessity for caution in this matter is illustrated on the very threshold, for (apart from the difficulty of determining how we are to measure a unit of satisfaction
*8) we have to note at once that this first curve which we have introduced is ambiguous in relation to the very matter we are now discussing, viz., the relation between assuaging a craving and securing a positive enjoyment, or, more generally, between removing negative and securing positive objects of desire. We have seen that the removal of a pain must have the positive sign, and it must therefore be represented by a positive area, so that if we begin in pain and the supply of a commodity gradually removes that pain, the result must be represented as positive—comparable with, and to be weighed against, a gain of positive satisfaction. Our figure, therefore, will not tell us whether we begin in a state of positive satisfaction, a state of indifference, or a state of negative satisfaction, or pain. It will only tell us that if we command the quantity of the commodity represented by
Ox2 our state will be the
better, by the whole area
Opp1x2, than it would have been had we had no supply at all. If we only command
Ox1 our state will be the better by the area
Opp1x1. The area
x1p1x2 will then represent either an unassuaged pain or an unrealised pleasure, but in either case the area
Opp1x1 must have the positive sign. It is a gain, not a loss. The existence of the possibilities represented by the figure may in itself constitute a misfortune or a privilege; but granted their existence, the command of
Ox1 of the commodity, whether it means plus a pleasure or minus a pain, is a gain (in the estimation of the subject), and must be regarded as positive.
If we draw
Fig. 2, it will represent the effects of the supply of a commodity which ceases to act in a positive sense when it exceeds
Ox1 in quantity. Thus at a given temperature the consumption of fuel might begin by being extremely acceptable, and when it had reached the rate of
Ox1 per hour it might cease to be acceptable at all, and might, if raised still higher, become positively undesirable, or negatively desirable. Now one man may be so constituted that whereas he does not feel any positive distress by sitting without a fire, he may be conscious of a distinct pleasure if a fire is lighted; and another may be consciously miserable without a fire, and as the warmth increases may be conscious only of more or less adequate relief from discomfort till the quantity
Ox1 is exceeded, after which another kind of discomfort ensues from excessive heat. Yet another may at first be conscious of relief from suffering; then, before the quantity
Ox1 is reached, may feel that all his discomfort is gone and a positive enjoyment of the cosy warmth has succeeded to it; until, as the quantity
Ox1 is exceeded, he feels that although the room is still positively pleasant it would be pleasanter yet if the fire were kept a little lower. To all these men alike the supply of the commodity up to the quantity
Ox1 will produce a result that should have a positive sign and should be represented by a positive area, though to one it is minus pain, to another plus pleasure, and to the third at first minus pain and then plus pleasure; and to all of them the further increments represented by the line
x1x2 produce a result that should carry the negative sign and should be represented by a negative area, though to one it is plus pain and to another minus pleasure. All of them are in a state more to be desired as the supply grows from zero to
Ox1, and in a state less to be desired as it grows from
It follows from this example that an area below the axis of
X, which represents negative satisfaction, may mean a subtraction from pleasure that leaves a positive balance, just as well as an addition of pain.
Fig. 3 would represent a supply, or an experience, that, whether it detracts from the happiness of a happy state or makes a neutral one positively painful, or a painful one more painful yet, in any case produces a negative result, of increasing intensity per unit, as one increment follows another. If we are speaking in terms of positive satisfaction we shall still say that these increments have a declining (positive) significance, though if we were speaking in terms of negative satisfaction, or pain, we should say that they had a rising (negative) significance. Thus the fact that things which cause discomfort normally act with increasing intensity as unit is added to unit does not affect the generality of our proposition that additional increments, after a certain point, produce decreasing (positive) results.
It sometimes happens that a positive quantity (in the technical and ambiguous sense in which it includes the subtraction off a negative quantity) is only to be had in association with a negative quantity. In that case probably the positive ordinates of the first will decline, and the negative ordinates of the second will increase, the movement in both cases being technically in the sense of positive decline. Thus a man who has bitten his tongue or has bitten a piece half out of his cheek may be in need of food, and yet eating may cause him acute annoyance. As his hunger or sense of faintness gradually yields, and his demand for food becomes less urgent, the increasing painfulness of the terms upon which alone he can assuage the declining urgency of his want will soon balance it, and his meal will come to what would else have been a premature conclusion. This might be represented either analytically by
Fig. 4, or synthetically by
Fig. 5. Both figures alike represent the fact that up to
Ox an advance from the origin is accompanied by a balance of advantage, and that after that point the reverse is the case. And both figures agree in the magnitude of the advantage or disadvantage in either case.
Where there is no indication to the contrary a curve must be taken to indicate not a history but an anticipation, and an anticipation that has discounted (not necessarily for what they are worth) all conflicting elements, risks, and reactions as far as they come within the ken of the person who makes the estimate. It will be a synthetic and resultant estimate of the balance of advantage to be anticipated from the acquisition of each successive unit of the commodity, of the type of Fig. 5.
We have noted that positive and negative quantities may be balanced against each other, and also that mathematically positive and negative quantities may both alike be ambiguous psychologically; for just as a subtraction from pain and an addition to pleasure are alike positive, so a subtraction from pleasure and an addition to pain are alike negative. Thus Fig. 2 (page 417), where the increments of the same commodity at first have a positive and then a negative effect, is explicit as to the positive or negative sense of the process in question, and as to declining (positive) significance of all increments after a certain point; but it is equivocal as to the positive or negative state of the person affected. He might be either in a state of suffering or a state of enjoyment throughout the process, or he might pass from suffering to enjoyment at any point on the line
Ox1, or from enjoyment to suffering at any point on the line
x1x2; but in any case he has either more enjoyment or less suffering as he passes from
x1, and either less enjoyment or more suffering as he passes from
Now, although the relief from a pain and the securing of a pleasure, or the deduction from a pleasure and the addition of a pain, have respectively the same signs, and may be taken as equivalents, yet they are in themselves very different things. Given my constitution and circumstances, a certain relief from pain must be regarded as equivalent to a certain positive pleasure, a certain deduction of pleasure to a certain access of pain; and certain pleasures and pains taken together, or certain relinquishments of pleasure and escapes from pain taken together, must be regarded as balancing or neutralising each other; but it makes all the difference in life whether my constitution and circumstances are such that my energies have to be given chiefly to escaping or minimising undesired things or are mostly free for securing or developing desired ones, and whether I can often or only seldom get a pleasure without a concomitant pain or escape a pain without a concomitant loss of pleasure. And it is just here that our immediate choices react upon our future possibilities.
This subject of the reaction of our enjoyments, privations, and endurances upon our future capacities for enjoyment has already been touched upon in Book I.,
*9 but the investigation we have just completed will now enable us to enter upon it more fully. We have to make constant adjustments between the immediate gratification of desires and the building up of capacities. A great part of wise conduct obviously consists in forgoing a present gratification, or incurring present pain, or making irksome effort, in order to acquire a capacity for future enjoyment, or power ultimately to secure or promote desired ends. Wise administration of vital resources must therefore take constant note of this reaction of the present upon the future.
Every wise man must desire to build up for himself such habits of mind and body from within, as well as to surround himself with such outward circumstances, as will make life as little as possible an escape from wretchedness and as much as possible an experience of well-being and an achievement of desired ends. We must therefore cultivate the power to endure such undesired experiences as are inevitable, and to forgo such desired experiences as are unattainable, with the minimum of suffering, and to derive the maximum of satisfaction from the realisation of things desired. An example may make this clear. Two men are on a tour together in a beautiful and sparsely inhabited country. They find themselves out of their reckoning, and when dinner-time comes they are far from any opportunities of dinner. The spirits of one of the companions begin to sink, his temper becomes unstable, he cannot enjoy the scenery through which he is passing, the exhilaration of mountain air or of the battle with the waves is a thing he knows not, the suggestion to turn aside and spend half an hour in ascending a rock or exploring a cave is fiercely resented, and, in fact, the man’s whole moral, æsthetical, and physical being is swept up into one hideous craving for food. At last the friends (if they still deserve the name) reach hospitable quarters. Their hostess wishes to do justice to her reputation and keeps them waiting for an hour in order to set a noble repast before them. But when it comes it is too late. The poor wretch can now eat nothing, and goes sick and miserable to bed. His companion (so far as his sympathetic heart allowed) has meanwhile been drawing in delight at every pore, keenly enjoying the tussle with the waves or the stride across the heather, with an eye that (like Wordsworth’s) finds no hairbreadth of earth, sea, or sky from which it does not gather delight, ready at any moment to turn aside and delay the end of the journey in order to increase the enjoyment of its progress, conscious indeed of keen hunger, but conscious of it rather as a prospect of future pleasure than as a present experience of pain; and when at last he finds himself opposite his victuals, a harmony is established between the organism and the environment which almost rises to the dignity of a spiritual experience. The less fortunate of these travellers derives the maximum of suffering and the minimum of enjoyment, the other the minimum of suffering and the maximum of enjoyment, from the necessity of taking food. The one is the victim of a craving; the other has a capacity for enjoyment. To the one it is agony to be thwarted, and only a negative satisfaction to be humoured; to the other privation is no pain, but a supply “adds sunshine to daylight.”
The wise or happily constituted man has a mind so regulated that many of his desires only become rampant as the prospect of satisfaction approaches. Till then they are dormant potentialities of enjoyment. Thus the man who on coming in sight of a public-house declared that he “had a thirst on him for which he would not take £5” was perhaps to be congratulated if he had been thoroughly happy before he saw it; but if he had been miserable himself and a cause of misery to his companions for the last hour or two because there was
not a public-house in sight, he was an unenviable person as well as an undesirable companion.
What, in the instances we have given, may be regarded at any rate primarily as a difference of physical constitution has all manner of analogies in acquired habits of mind and body; and every wise man would desire for himself and others such habits and impulses as would conform to the happier type. Now, though all means or opportunities of gratification seem to have this in common, that the immediate effect of successive increments is (after a certain point) of declining positive value, yet different kinds of gratification differ enormously in their after-effects upon the organism itself. Is our present enjoyment building up an increased capacity for future enjoyment? Is it leaving us permanently unmodified, so that after a time we shall return to exactly the same state in which we were before? Is it undermining our power of future enjoyment, so that after every act of indulgence we return not to the same, but to a lower power of enjoyment than we had before? Or is it substituting a craving for a capacity for enjoyment?
The characteristic of ruinous enjoyment is that it not only tends to satisfy us at the time (as do all enjoyments), but that it also tends to undermine our capacity for future enjoyment. The most pronounced forms of ruinous enjoyment are probably those which are popularly regarded as vicious, such as intemperance. The characteristic of a vice, from a hedonistic point of view, is that it tends to replace a capacity for enjoyment by a craving. Intoxication may be extremely delightful, but the more habitually a man drinks, the less pleasure it gives him to be drunk and the more pain it gives him to be sober. He begins, perhaps, by hitting on a means of heightening enjoyment; but he ends by being in a state of chronic misery, from which he gains occasional respite in an intoxication which no longer gives him any positive pleasure. His whole conscious being has been swallowed up in the vortex of one frightful and incessant craving. This is a typical case of ruinous enjoyment. I am not here concerned with any attempt to analyse the ultimate grounds of the reprobation implied in the terms “vicious” and “vice,” but it is interesting to note that the popular moral judgment stands in intelligible relation with the results of a hedonistic calculus. And note that our diagrammatic method gives us no notice of this change from a source of pleasure to a craving. Diagrammatically the appeasing of a craving is indistinguishable from the securing of a satisfaction; and if the acquired craving is more imperious than the natural desire for pleasure originally was, we should have to represent the change by an increased height of the curve indistinguishable from the representation of an increased capacity for enjoyment.
But there are many enjoyments which, so far from producing a vicious craving, rather tend to beget a sense of satiety, or even disgust, unless kept within very moderate limits. The danger here is not of converting a possible source of enjoyment into a craving, but simply of deadening by indulgence the susceptibilities from which the enjoyment springs. For example, most people enjoy a little salmon occasionally, and are inclined to regard it as something of a treat; but it is pretty generally known that, if used as a staple food, salmon very soon loses its charm. The provision long customary in the indentures of apprentices, that they must not be required to eat salmon more than so many times a week, is the historical record of this fact. Salmon therefore could not well take the place of the Englishman’s traditional rasher of bacon as the breakfast dish for all the year round. It seems to be a fairly general experience (though of course by no means universal) that you may eat fried bacon for breakfast whenever you are inclined to do so, and may continue to be so inclined day after day and year after year; whereas if you were to eat salmon whenever you were inclined to do so, you would very soon cease to be inclined to eat it at all. The appetite for bacon, then, when extinguished for the moment, rapidly recovers its pristine vigour; whereas the appetite for salmon, unless it is allowed a long period of recovery, becomes permanently lowered or deadened. If a man, though eating salmon as often as he feels inclined, does not eat as much at a time as he is inclined to do, the effect may be deferred. But even so, salmon will soon cease to be much of a treat.
Again, a man is not likely to eat oatmeal porridge for the pleasure of the palate when the appetite (as an index of an organic demand of the system) is assuaged; whereas the skilled cook, “by successive intensifications of his diabolical art,” may tempt a man from excess to excess by appeals to his palate, even when his appetite has long been sated. Now healthy and vigorous persons who are accustomed to simple and frugal ways are perhaps conscious, or subconscious, on most days that they would enjoy a rather more elaborate diet than they are accustomed to. But every one who has had experience of the two ways of living will tell us that those who live with severe simplicity get more enjoyment out of their meals than those who have an elaborate dinner every day. It is very easy to see why. The man who tries to extract the maximum of sensuous satisfaction out of every meal is securing trifling increments of satisfaction at the margin to-day, and is thereby deadening his capacity for enjoying the more significant increments nearer the origin
*10 to-morrow. He is not indeed substituting a craving for a source of satisfaction, but he is lowering his possibilities of satisfaction. Thus, if a man has a moderate supply of any such luxuries as we have been discussing, his enjoyment may be represented by
Fig. 6. He stops at
x1, and there are still unexhausted possibilities of enjoyment. But if he habitually goes on to
x2, though at first he secures the additional area of enjoyment
x1p1p2x2, yet he gradually lowers the significance of the initial increments, and ultimately only enjoys the smaller area bounded by the dotted line above
Ox2 instead of the larger area
Opp1x1. Again, the man who eats or drinks as soon as he is inclined to do so, often falls into the habit of eating and drinking as soon as he is able to do so; and, as he never recovers a state of healthy hunger, he too always remains at the low level of enjoyment.
Let us take another illustration. Some moderate smokers will declare that a pipe
two or three times a day gives them great satisfaction, but that they do not miss it, in the sense of feeling any positive discomfort, if for any reason they are deprived of it. For the time being a single pipe completely exhausts the possibility of enjoyment, so that they would find no pleasure in further smoking. Let
Fig. 7 represent the total pleasure, declining from the initial point of intensity to the point of complete satisfaction.
It is obvious that after a pipe has extinguished the present possibility of further enjoyment a certain time must elapse before it is recovered; and it will not be recovered suddenly. Let us suppose that after an hour the area of possible enjoyment
x4p4x5 has been recovered; that is to say, the man is in the condition in which he was when he had smoked four-fifths of his pipe. He may now enjoy a cigarette that contains one-fifth of a pipeful of tobacco as much as he enjoyed the
last fifth of his pipe; and if he repeats this every hour he enjoys five times the area
x4p4x5 in the course of five hours. Whereas if he had not smoked for five hours he would then be just where he was before he smoked his last pipe and could enjoy the whole area
We have seen that our diagrams do not distinguish between the assuaging of a craving and the conferring of a positive satisfaction, and that in many cases the earlier increments of a commodity may perform the first function, and the later increments the second; and, moreover, that the two may overlap. In the case of smoking it is possible, though not usual, for a man who enjoys it to be able to abstain completely from it without positive suffering. In the case of food or drink this is impossible. Thus, if a man had a suitable allowance of food and drink, he might divide it up into a number of rapidly succeeding nibbles and sips (like cigarettes), or he might take larger portions at longer intervals. It would seem that in such cases the man who does not allow his organism time to recover its full sensitiveness to pleasure before he endeavours to extract renewed enjoyment out of it, and the man who pushes abstinence to the point of positive pain and craving before he assuages it, supposing them both to eat the same amount, would be alike wasteful in their administration. The man who lets his organism recover its power of yielding enjoyment without inflicting positive suffering on it (or, if the two states overlap, goes back to the point at which the pain incurred and the pleasure secured just balance) is administering his resources to the best advantage.
Note here again the extreme care that must be taken in the use of diagrams. If our curve in Fig. 7 represented the value of successive increments of any commodity per month (as in the case of tea in Book I. Chap. II.), or per year, or per day, it would take no note of the different effects of the same rate of supply differently distributed within the period in question, which is the problem we have now been discussing. Some system as to this internal distribution is tacitly assumed (as it was in our former tea problem) as constant during the whole inquiry, or as modified according to some consistent system as the supply contracts or expands. This is as it should be, for whatever particular condition we are examining and are supposing to be subject to variations, it must always be assumed that the other conditions are constant.
To return to our main inquiry. We have seen that certain kinds of enjoyment, and certain habits of consumption, while apparently innocent in themselves, are eminently wasteful from the hedonistic point of view, either because they more or less permanently deaden the keener powers of enjoyment, or because they never give those powers the opportunity of recovering themselves. And yet deliberately to stop eating salmon when you would like more, in order that you may be able to get more pleasure out of a help of salmon this day week, is a piece of self-conscious sybaritism from which the healthy mind revolts. Even the man who will not eat when he is hungry and has suitable food before him, for fear of “spoiling his appetite” for a more sumptuous repast which he expects in a couple of hours, fails to excite our admiration. We seem then to be in the presence of a kind of waste against which it is impossible to provide without unworthy attention to appetites that are only wholesome so long as they are unreflective. And so indeed we are. But our analysis has resulted in a triumphant vindication of certain instincts which we may henceforth trust more completely, and which, if we follow them, will effect the desired saving and give zest and vigour to life, without any habitual self-consciousness. Luxurious living has always lain under suspicion as hostile to a vigorous life, as something which, if not absolutely culpable, deserves a certain disapproval, and moreover as self-defeating even on its own chosen ground of physical enjoyment. Self-indulgent habits which, on the face of it, only seem to open up innocent sources of enjoyment are nevertheless regarded with a certain contemptuous impatience by healthy and vigorous minds. The man accused of self-indulgence retorts on his critic with a charge of asceticism; and his mentor, while repudiating the charge, often finds it difficult to defend by logic the position to which he is guided by an obscure instinct. But that obscure instinct, we now see, is perfectly sound, and it warns us against forms of enjoyment which, if not viciously ruinous, are yet wasteful.
We seem now to have got at something like the philosophy of it. The self-indulgent person is perpetually nibbling and never giving himself the chance of a hearty meal. The ascetic is always cutting back to the point at which the potentiality of a satisfaction passes into the realisation of a pain. And both alike debilitate their frames, and unduly concentrate their minds upon material sources of satisfaction. For, be it observed, persons who have practised genuine asceticism (as distinct from persons who by nature or training have become indifferent to what most men enjoy) will generally tell you that they were never so greedy in their lives as when they fasted severely; and perhaps that they have never quite recovered from the effect of the practice. A sufficient effort of will, or a strong enough preoccupation, may extinguish or indefinitely suspend a craving, but to maintain a want at the stage of craving, without extinguishing it, is to fix the mind upon it. Hence many curious parallels in the moral effects of luxurious and ascetic living; and hence the justification of the instinct for a robust and simple life that shuns both.
We can now fully understand the recognised failure of all elaborate attempts to make life enjoyable by luxuries. A rich man trying really to enjoy himself in the midst of his wealth often suggests a man attempting to bathe in his Sunday clothes. He cannot feel the sweep of wind and water over his limbs. Hence the genuine but futile wail of persons surrounded by luxury, hence their craving for the “simple life,” and their restless longing to break away from their surroundings and to put themselves into circumstances where money positively will not command any but the simplest supports of life. Only so can they get into contact with the initial satisfactions which are reserved for those whose nerves have not been deadened and blunted by being called upon to respond to fresh supplies before they have recovered from the last, or to seize a little more excitement at the margin to the detriment of their tone at the origin. There can be little doubt that those who constantly go without things, not because they do not want them, but because they cannot get them, and who have an unfailingly abundant supply of nothing but a few simple things, selected by experience for their staying qualities, get more physical enjoyment out of life, and a larger amount of physical delight out of their contact with things, than all the devices of luxury can secure. And, very happily, this mode of ordering life, with all its invaluable reactions, may be maintained, when once deliberately embraced, not by thinking but by not thinking about it. The man who cares most for other things will act with the greatest wisdom in these matters; and he will instinctively form habits, or, if you like, contract prejudices, which without self-consciousness will secure the best fruits of reflection.
This question of self-consciousness enters closely into another problem, which has to be faced in all housekeeping above the lines of poverty and below the lines of luxury. We have seen that “second helps are never so good as first,” and it would seem to follow that there is a
prima facie gain (under the reserves indicated on pages 82
sq.) in having no second help to-day, but another first help to-morrow or this day week. That is to say, if green peas or new potatoes (in themselves, let us take it, of the “staying,” not the “cloying” order of commodity) are a treat which cannot be indulged freely, it would seem to be better to have a little often than a great deal seldom. And many housewives follow this line. But it is by no means above challenge. Children who are habitually stopped at the first help when they keenly desire more will almost certainly become greedy, if the reason given for stopping is that they may have the rest to-morrow; whereas if they had sometimes had as much as they wanted; and none at other times, they might have remained healthily animal. And so we are back again at the point which we encountered early in our inquiries.
*11 We may pay too heavily for securing the best possible administration of certain defined resources in their application to their immediate purposes. On the whole, may we not say that the popular instinct regards as the most desirable life one which is simple to the verge of severity, but which allows a certain amount of variety, and prefers long or even complete and permanent abstinence to stinted and watched indulgence? Bread and water, Epicurus declared, were good enough for him; but for all that he would like a bit of cheese, so that he could have a blow out when the fancy took him. We may be sure that when he did have cheese he liked to have plenty. I once heard of a servant girl who every year bought and cooked for her single self a peck of green peas. She said she liked to “have her fill o’ peas” once a year, and when that was accomplished she was in a state of equilibrium for the rest of the season. She was a true Epicurean.
As far as material indulgences are concerned, then, the instincts of popular moral judgment condemn the most ruinous forms of enjoyment as vicious, regard less ruinous but still wasteful forms as undesirable, if not exactly culpable, and look askance at too scrupulous attempts to economise and maximise enjoyment, as savouring of self-conscious materialism and wanting in directness and robustness. The man who so orders his life that, with small or great variety, he periodically pursues his enjoyments down the slope of diminishing returns to a point determined by his general resources and the claims upon them, but never dulls his capacity for periodical renewal of them, escapes the censure of the most rigid moralist. He is “living the simple life.”
But there is another kind of satisfaction, the indulgence of which positively increases the capacity for future enjoyment. The man who enjoys himself in such ways as neither to reverse nor to destroy nor merely to maintain, but to increase his hedonistic capacity, gets a curious kind of credit for his conduct. Intellectual, literary, and artistic enjoyments (to those who really enjoy them) belong to this class. Most of them demand at some period or other a certain more or less painful effort and discipline. Probably no one can get the highest and most sustained form of enjoyment out of literature without a considerable amount of drudgery of one kind or another; and the same is true of art, and at least equally so of science. Even exercises or studies which are in the main enjoyable must often be pursued all down the scale of diminishing returns of satisfaction until they cease to give any pleasure at all and become in various degrees painful, if we are really to make anything of our studies. Some wise man (is it Ruskin?) has said that if we wish to do our best we must never work against the grain, but if we wish to do better than our best we must often go on when the work is irksome. We shall spoil it, but next time we shall do better than our former best.
Now this kind of gratification, sometimes merely pursued past the point of enjoyment, sometimes associated with painful training or irksome preparation, but always tending to create an increasing fund of possibilities of enjoyment, is regarded by the popular instinct as “superior.” We speak of people who cultivate such sources of satisfaction as having “superior tastes.” The slight half-veiled contempt for the “superior” person that we can often trace is apparently due, partly to a doubt whether he really does enjoy his superior pursuits, and partly to a suspicion that he may be starved into them by the lack of a wholesome and vigorous appetite for the robuster enjoyments of his neighbours. Lady Jane Grey appeared to prefer reading Plato to hunting and hawking; but did she really prefer it, or did she only wish to prefer it, or wish to be thought (by herself and others) to prefer it? And if she did prefer it, was it because she got more out of Plato or because she got less out of hunting and hawking than the others did? Was it the presence of a faculty they had not, or the absence of a faculty they had, that made her choice differ from theirs? Our respect for “superior” tastes when they are genuine is shewn by our extreme desire that the “working-man” should contract them, by our distress if more fiction than history and science is taken out of our public libraries, and our willingness to bear a part of the expenses of lectures on “superior” subjects—for others to attend.
Roughly speaking, these more fruitful enjoyments seem as a rule to be less exclusively and often less directly connected with the senses than the neutral or ruinous enjoyments are. It is true that the eye and ear are directly concerned in the enjoyment of music or of art, but the element of intellectual analysis and judgment, and, far more, the element of imaginative and emotional association, play a preponderating part in them. In the enjoyment of literature or of scientific investigation the place of the senses is still more subordinate. Now it is generally regarded as an axiom that mental and spiritual enjoyment is of a higher order than the enjoyment of the senses, and it is interesting alike for those who are, and for those who are not, prepared to receive such a judgment as axiomatic, to note that at any rate it finds itself, like the other moral judgments we have examined, in easily traceable relations with the hedonistic calculus.
But the coincidence is not quite complete. For capacities that can be developed and rendered fruitful, perhaps at the expense of initial pain, sometimes yield material, not spiritual or intellectual satisfactions. They are then on a level with “superior” satisfactions hedonistically. But the moral judgment declines to consider them “superior.” The process of learning to smoke wakes no moral enthusiasm even if it results in a power of enjoyment free from any vicious or wasteful craving. Having the ears pierced for earrings, in the old days, was only regarded as really praiseworthy by those who thought it a woman’s first “duty” to make herself attractive. No one gets moral credit for what has been called “the long and painful apprenticeship to the art of liking olives.” We have got some light, I trust, in this chapter on the relations of instinctive moral judgments and the results yielded by a hedonistic calculus; but it is far from my own belief that the one can be completely resolved into the other. This last set of instances may serve as a warning against any such belief.
The tendency, not fully accounted for by hedonistic considerations, to attach a note of intrinsic inferiority to pleasures of the sense is curiously illustrated by the case of connoisseurship in wines. If an interest in wines and a delicate judgment of them is combined with strict moderation it presents many of the qualities of an artistic enjoyment; and the old-fashioned elaborate conversation about wine presented a curious analogy to the discussion of the merits, say, of pictures. Yet to have given such close and earnest attention to things of sense suggested a more or less material view of life. Hence a somewhat confused feeling. Connoisseurship in wines seemed in itself to belong to a “superior” order of enjoyments, but by its associations and suggestions, to an “inferior” order; and accordingly it often provoked in the mind of the impartial outsider curiously mingled and conflicting feelings, now bordering on contempt, and now rising to something very like respect or even envy.
It will hardly have escaped the reader’s notice that our examination of the reactions of different enjoyments upon the organism, and especially the section on the wastefulness of enjoyments of the intrinsically cloying order, or enjoyments carried to the cloying point, has been a running commentary on the dangers of civilisation and of increased command of material comforts. If wisdom does not grow with power, our latter state, even from the material point of view, may well be worse than our former, as material wealth increases; and the action of the economic forces, unguided and unchecked, naturally favours the growth not only of a class of ministers to vice, but of a class of persons who live by enabling people to get another drop out of the squeezed orange of to-day’s capacity for enjoyment, reckless of its reactions upon to-morrow. And further, it will be seen that the “simple life” comes, if at all, rather incidentally as a natural result of caring for worthy things than as an object self-consciously aimed at for its own sake. The remarks on pages 186-189 may be re-read in the light thrown on them by this chapter.
Nothing that has been said in this chapter must be taken as committing the author to a hedonistic theory of ethics. Suppose a man deliberately desires to cultivate impulses, and to train himself to a sense of values which he does not expect to give him the maximum of personal happiness. Suppose there are things that he really does care for more than his own happiness, or impersonal objects that he wishes he did care for, and hopes he one day will care for, more than for his personal enjoyments. Such a man would endure suffering, sacrifice pleasure, and fight against many of his impulses, in order to secure a permanent set or habit of will and a firmly established scale of values which could only be justified by reference to some social or religious test. These purposes would have secured his loyalty, but not on the ground that they promised to secure his happiness. But the formation of such habits and the cultivation of such affections would, in this case, be the man’s active desire, for whatever reason; and he would sacrifice the gratification of other desires in pursuing it. His self-discipline and his renunciations would be, from our point of view, of the same order as those of the man who undergoes irksome discipline for the sake of acquiring a hedonistically valuable taste, though he would not be moved by hedonistic considerations. It is not my purpose, however, to discuss ethical theories, but merely to shew that the general principles on which our investigations are based, while throwing light on the hedonistic calculus, do not presuppose a hedonistic theory, but are equally applicable to any other.
I will conclude this chapter with a few additional notes on the nature and limitations of the diagrammatic representations we have used. They may be best regarded as attaching themselves to the examination of roused and dormant desires on pages 422, 423. A large number of personal curves probably rise for some time before the ordinates reach their maximum and begin to decline. The matter is a little difficult to decide, for it is not easy to keep it clear from the considerations, entered upon above, of changes in the ethos of the individual during any considerable period. But it may well be that the same man with the same tastes and capacities would be willing to pay a larger sum for, say, a second chance in the month of hearing good music than he would for the first, possibly more for a third chance than for a second (and then less for a fourth and fifth, and so on), not because his musical taste is improved, but because his musical appetite is roused. In any case, when a dormant capacity or desire is roused, or a mild one stimulated, an abrupt or early cessation of the means of satisfying it may leave us in a balked or aching state, which constitutes a pain in excess of the original sense of want or privation (hunger, or what not) which is as yet imperfectly relieved. It is possible that, starting with any given condition, and regarding relief from discomfort and positive pleasure alike as positive, the sudden arresting of satisfaction might leave a legacy of actual pain which would not be represented on our diagram; because the supply of the commodity has a positive value as long as it lasts, and would continue to have a positive value if it proceeded.
Fig. 8 might give some kind of representation of such a case. It might mean that the man started from a state of indifference, but pursued some occupation or enjoyment with growing keenness, and derived a pure access of satisfaction as the appetite was at once roused and gratified. Up to the amount
Ox1 he has secured the area of satisfaction
Op1x1, and there remains an unexhausted possibility of satisfaction represented by the area
x1p1x2. But if the supply is now broken off, the unsatisfied desire continues and the satisfaction ceases. The result is a pain represented by the negative area below
x1t. It is only after a lapse of time represented by
x1t that the pain wears itself out and the man returns to his initial state, having experienced both a positive and a negative satisfaction, the latter of which might in some cases be the greater. In such cases we say we had rather have had none of a thing at all than the tantalising amount we secured, even though we thoroughly enjoyed that little while it lasted. Fig. 8, however, is a monstrosity; for progress along the axis of
X means increments of commodity up to
x1, and for the positive area above, up to
x2; whereas for the negative area it means the passage of time from
t. It is really two figures, and the units of area alone are common to the two.
Returning to the phenomenon itself, we note that it may occur in every case of gratification arrested short of complete satisfaction. As a rule we may suppose that the lower the point to which we have reduced the ordinate the smaller will be this offset of dissatisfaction. And in a well-filled life it will often be absolutely eliminated; for although the lowest increment of satisfaction has not been squeezed out of some indulgence, and a theoretical sense of want might supervene if the next occupation or experience of the man were inherently neutral, yet if there is some other pleasant or desired occupation to which to turn, the anticipation of it substitutes eagerness for something else in the place of a languid desire to continue the present experience on the declining slope. Perhaps the best theoretical defence of smoking that has yet been discovered by the numerous and able advocates engaged in the cause is the assertion that it prevents listless and self-indulgent persons from over-eating, because when the keen demands of appetite have been satisfied but there is still enough left to dally with, the seductive prospect of a smoke turns the mind into another direction and offers a greater satisfaction from the arrest of the process of eating than can be gained from its continuance.
It is a fact pointed out and abundantly illustrated by the psychologists, that the very same present sensations may be pleasant or painful, according to the anticipations of the immediate future with which they are associated. The hunger that is a conscious pain, if the prospect of a meal is at all remote, may be a source of keen pleasure to the man who actually has his victuals before him, even before he has eaten the first mouthful. And in the same way the man who is accustomed to associate self-control with vigour, enjoyment of life, sense of command, and self-respect, may derive positive and immediate satisfaction from the absence, at the end of every meal, of that “sense of repletion” which in itself, according to Alexander Bain, is “massive and serene.”
The conclusion of the whole matter, so far as our diagrams are concerned, is that it is generally an abuse of the diagrammatic method to attempt to make a curve represent, with any closeness, an isolated and concrete experience. A curve must represent the
estimate formed by the consumer of the value to him of the successive increments of the commodity, and that estimate will be formed in view of all the immediate effects and remoter reactions and implications which he is capable of appreciating. All these considerations therefore will tell on the height of the ordinates, which must be regarded as registering the resultant estimate. The anticipations on which they rest will perhaps never be perfectly justified; but as anticipations they have already made all the necessary discounts, and they need no kind of supplementing or correction. Declining ordinates mean that the consumer, taking at his own valuation all the considerations that can influence him, desires successive increments of the commodity with declining eagerness; and his estimates are based upon anticipations which are constantly being checked and modified by experience.
Alphabet of Economic Science (London, 1888), pages 128
sqq., especially pages 446