6 Pseudo Principles of Practical Philosophy (A Critique of Abstract Eudaemonism in Its Various Forms)

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2015
Thomas Nemeth (ed.)Vladimir Solov’ëv’s Justification of the Moral Good10.1007/978-3-319-12775-0_7

[143]Chapter 6 Pseudo Principles of Practical Philosophy (A Critique of Abstract Eudaemonism in Its Various Forms)

Thomas Nemeth 

Old Bridge, New Jersey, USA



Thomas Nemeth

E] The original form of this chapter was first published with the subtitle “The pseudo principles of correct behavior (A critique of the various forms of eudaemonism).” In the first edition of the compiled work from 1897, Chap. 6 spans pp. 165–192.


Reason defines the moral good as truth (in the broad sense), i.e., as the proper relation to everything. This intrinsically all-encompassing and logically necessary idea of the moral good may turn out to be, in the concrete sense, i.e., in practice, devoid of universality and necessity. The moral good, as the ideal norm of the will, then does not in fact coincide with the (real) good, that is, with the object of an actual desire. The moral good is what should be, but (1) not everyone desires what should be; (2) among those who do desire the moral good, not all happen to be able to overcome the bad urges stemming from their own nature; and finally, (3) the few who have achieved within themselves a victory of the moral good over evil—the virtuous, righteous people or saints—are unable by means of their goodness to vanquish the evil in which the whole world lies.1 To the extent that someone does not desire the moral good, however, it is not a good for him or her. Even though rational consciousness claims to desire something, if this something does not act on the will it is only a conceptual but not a real good. Finally, if the moral good does not give a person the power to realize what should be in the entire world, even though it affects this person’s will and thereby makes him or her inwardly better, it is not a sufficient good.

This threefold divergence of the (moral) good from the (real) good, apparently, renders the idea of the moral good intrinsically self-contradictory. [144]In addition to its ideal content, the very definition of the moral good, as what should be the case, involves a real demand, viz., that its moral content should be not merely theoretical but realized in practice. By its very concept, what should be the case should be realized. A moral good that is impotent is not a moral good. Moreover, it is impossible to acknowledge as proper, as the way it should be, the fact that only a part of humanity desires what should be, that very few live as they should and that no one can lead the world to the proper state of affairs. Conceptually, the moral good and the real good ought to coincide with each other. The latter ought to be the direct, universal and necessary outcome of the former and ought to represent the unconditional desirability and reality of the moral good. In fact, though, they do not coincide. The real good is distinguished from the moral good and, taken in isolation from the latter, is understood to be a sense of well-being. The real inadequacy of the idea of the moral good leads us to turn to this principle of well-being, a principle which, apparently, has, as an inducement to act, the factual universality and necessity that purely moral demands lack. The goal of any action that someone sets for oneself certainly has, either directly or indirectly, the characteristic that the attainment of the goal will satisfy the one who acts or will improve one’s sense of well-being. On the other hand, it is certainly not the case that the goal of every action bears either directly or even only indirectly an indication of the moral good. Every desire, as such, is apparently only a desire for satisfaction, i.e., for a sense of well-being. To desire a calamity or dissatisfaction would be the same as to desire deliberately the undesirable, which is a straightforward absurdity. If it is the case that in order to be actually realized the moral good must itself become something desired, then the ethical principle depends on the practical (in the narrow sense) idea of the real good or a sense of well-being, which is set as the supreme principle of human action.

This eudaemonistic principle (from the Greek ευδαιμονία—state of bliss, a sense of well-being) has the obvious advantage that it does not raise the question: Why? We can ask why I should strive for the moral good when such striving conflicts with my natural inclinations and causes only pain in me. However, it is impossible to ask why I should desire my own well-being, because by my nature I cannot help but desire it. [145]Such a desire is inseparably a part of my existence and is a direct expression of it. I exist as someone who desires, and I certainly desire only what satisfies me or what pleases me. All of us think our sense of well-being is to be found either in what immediately provides satisfaction or in what leads to it, i.e., what serves as a means for achieving pleasing states. Therefore, the sense of well-being is best defined through the concept of pleasure (from the Greek ήδονή, hence the doctrine of hedonism).


When what morally should be the case is replaced by what is desired, the goal of life or the highest good is reduced to pleasure . Although it has apparent clarity, simplicity and reality, this concept meets insuperable difficulties when applied in real situations. From the general fact that all of us want what is pleasing to us, no general principle or rule of action can be deduced. The fact is that the universality in the concept of pleasure is only of a formally logical or abstract nature and does not express any actual unity. The assertion that the ultimate goal of all actions (directly or indirectly) is pleasure, i.e., the satisfaction of the person who acts, is indisputable. However, it is also as empty as, for example, the assertion that all actions end in something or that all actions are directed to something. In today’s world, it is impossible to find a single universal pleasure,2 but only an indeterminate number of all sorts of pleasures, which have nothing in common between themselves. One person finds the greatest delight in drinking vodka, while another seeks “the bliss for which there is neither name nor measure.”3 However, even the latter forgets about all ulterior goods and wants food and drink above all else when he feels the pangs of extreme hunger or thirst. On the other hand, under certain conditions everything that once gave pleasure or seemed pleasant ceases to be attractive and even life itself loses all value.

In reality, the idea of pleasure has to do with a vast chaos of contingent inclinations, which differ depending on the characters and tastes of the individuals, their degrees of personal development, their [146]ages, social standings and present moods. What specific expression can be given to pleasure as a general practical principle? Could it be, perhaps, “Let everyone act in order to attain for himself as far as possible what is agreeable at the moment?” Generally speaking, although firmly established and more or less successfully employed in the animal kingdom, such a rule is awkward in human practice thanks to two circumstances: (1) the presence in humans of unnatural urges, which when satisfied yield the desired pleasure but also lead to clear and certain ruin, which for everyone is highly undesirable, and (2) the presence of human reason, which compares various (natural) inclinations and pleasures to each other and evaluates them with respect to their subsequent consequences. We find, by the way, such an evaluation in a rudimentary form in animals, which act or refrain from acting not only based on the incentive of an immediate pleasure or displeasure but also by considering further pleasing or displeasing consequences, which follow from this or that conduct. In animals, however, this consideration extends no further than simple associations. For example, the idea of a morsel of beef taken without permission is associated with the idea of a whipping, etc. Despite such quite simple considerations, owing to its more abstract character human reason can make general comparisons between the immediate motives of pleasure and its remote consequences. Following this train of thought, the most courageous representative of pure hedonism in ancient philosophy, Hegesias of Cyrenae , concluded that from the viewpoint of pleasure life in general is not worth living. He reasoned that seeking enjoyment is either unsuccessful, and thus painful, or having attained the goal the situation proves to be deceptive, since after a momentary feeling of satisfaction boredom and a new pursuit for deception inevitably follows. Since it is impossible to attain genuine pleasure, we should strive to free ourselves of displeasure, and the surest way to do this is to die. Such is Hegesias’s conclusion,4 and for it he was nicknamed “the advocate of death” (πεισιθαυατoς). Even apart from such extreme conclusions, however, the inadequacy of “pleasure,” as a principle, is clear from an analysis of the concept itself.


Simply seeking pleasure cannot be a principle of action, because by itself it is indefinite and lacks content. What real content it does have lies only in the contingent objects that arouse it and thus is quite unstable. The only universal and necessary element in the infinite variety of possible pleasant states5 happens to be that the attainment of any goal or object of desire whatever is certainly felt and presented beforehand to be a pleasure, i.e., to be a satisfied or fulfilled desire. This extremely elementary psychological truth, however,6 contains neither the slightest indication of the nature of the object desired nor of the means to attain it. Both retain all of their empirical diversity and contingency, and the point of view of pleasure does not by itself give us any actual definition of the highest good to which all others should be subordinate. Consequently, it provides us with neither a principle nor a rule for action. We can clarify this matter even further if we look at pleasure not in its general sense as a satisfied desire, but in concrete instances, i.e., at particular pleasant sensations. Being merely the consequence of an urge, of an attained goal, and not the goal itself, these states do not happen to be desired in themselves. What is desired are certain, specific realities and not the pleasant sensations that arise from them. For someone who is hungry and thirsty, bread and water are the immediately desired objects, and not a means to obtain gustatory pleasures. Certainly, we know from experience that it is very pleasant to eat when hungry, but a baby craves to suck before having any experience of it. And even after having reached a certain age there arises in him a very powerful desire for objects, whose actual pleasantness he has not yet come to know. It is quite useless to resort in this case to “heredity,” because we would then have to go as far back as chemical molecules. Yet hardly anyone would dare to claim that such molecules crave to form specific combinations simply because these molecules remember the pleasantness of similar combinations earlier.

Let us remember another reason why we cannot identify the good with the fact of pleasure. Everyone knows from experience [148]that by no means does the degree of the desirability of certain objects or states always correspond to the real degree of sensual pleasure we attain from them. Thus, in the case of a strong erotic attraction to a specific person of the opposite sex, possessing this particular person is seen as the highest bliss, and in comparison the desire to possess any other person vanishes. However, the real pleasure to be derived from an infinitely desired fact certainly has nothing to do with infinity and is approximately equal to the pleasure from any other satisfaction of the given instincts. In general, the desirability of particular objects, or of their significance as goods, is determined not by the subjective states of pleasure that subsequently follow, but by the objective interrelations of these objects with our corporeal or psychic nature. For the most part, we are not aware of the source and the character of these relations with sufficient clarity, and they manifest their activity only in the form of a blind inclination.

However, if pleasure is not the essence of the good, of the desired as such, it is in any case a constant feature of the latter. Whatever may be the fundamental causes of the desirability of the given objects or states that appear to us as goods, it is indubitable that the attained good or the fulfilled desire is always accompanied by a sensation of pleasure. Therefore, being inseparably connected with a real good in general, as its necessary consequence, pleasure can serve to determine the highest good, at least in the sense of a practical principle.

From this point of view, the highest good is the state that offers the greatest amount of satisfaction. This amount is determined not just directly through the addition of pleasant states, but also indirectly through the subtraction of unpleasant states. In other words, the highest sense of well-being lies in the possession of those goods which on the whole, or as the final result, deliver the maximum enjoyment and the minimum amount of pain.7 The principle of action here is not simply the seeking of [149]immediate pleasure, but prudence , which evaluates different pleasures and selects from among them those that are the most lasting and free of pain. The person who is recognized as having a sense of well-being or is happy is not the one who, at a given moment, experiences the most intense enjoyment, but the one whose life as a whole presents a constant preponderance of pleasant states over painful ones, in other words, one who in the end enjoys himself more than suffers. “A man of practical wisdom,” says Aristotle, “pursues what is free from pain, not what is pleasant.”8 This is the point of view of eudaemonism, in the proper sense, or prudent eudaemonism. Those who follow this doctrine will not “wallow in the mire of sensual pleasures,” which destroy the soul and the body. Rather, they find a sense of well-being chiefly in higher intellectual and aesthetic enjoyments, which, being the most enduring, are connected with the least amount of pain.


Despite its comparative plausibility, prudent eudaemonism shares the same fate as any form of eudaemonism: It too turns out to be only a pseudo principle. When the real good is defined as a sense of well-being, all that matters is attaining and securing it. No amount of prudence, however can either attain or secure it.

Our life and fate depend on causes and figures, which and who are independent of the decisions and measures taken by our worldly wisdom. Moreover, for the most part, the prudent egoist simply loses all opportunity for real, though fleeting, pleasure, without thereby acquiring any lasting sense of well-being. The precarious nature of all goods is all the more fatal because, in contrast to animals, humans know about it in advance. The inevitable collapse of every instance of happiness casts a shadow even over moments of genuine enjoyment. However, even in those rare cases when a prudent life-style actually does lead to a quantitative surplus of painless9 [150]states over sad and painful ones, the triumph of eudaemonism is merely illusory. For it is based upon an arbitrary exclusion of a qualitative character of our mental states (taking “quality” not in the moral sense—which for now can be questioned—but simply in the psychological or, more precisely, psychophysical sense, viz., the intensity of the pleasant sensations). Undoubtedly, the strongest, most captivating enjoyments, are, nevertheless, not those that prudence recommends but those connected with savage passions. Granted that here too in many cases the pleasure of satisfaction is disproportionate to the strength of the desire, but, nevertheless, it is incomparably more intense than all the sensations that a moderate and orderly life-style can yield. When prudence tells us that passions will lead us to ruin, we can, without disputing this truth in any way, simply recall another:

All, all that is threatened by fate,

Is for the heart of mortal weight

Full of inexplicable delight…10

From the eudaemonistic viewpoint, it is impossible to say anything against this. Why should I renounce “inexplicable delights” for the sake of some dull prosperity? Passions will lead to our ruin, but does prudence really save us from it? Where is the person who, by means of prudent behavior alone, has conquered death?

The voice of the passions can prove to be wrong only in the presence of something higher. It is silenced in the presence of heavenly thunder, but the dull speeches of prudence are powerless to drown it.

Certainly a satisfaction of the passions , which leads to ruin, cannot be the highest good. However, from the general point of view of eudaemonism, it can have a decisive advantage over the innocent pleasures of good behavior, which do not save us from ruin. Let us assume that intellectual and aesthetic pleasures are not just innocent, but also noble. Their value, however, is connected with limitations that preclude these goods from being recognized as the highest good.


These “spiritual” pleasures essentially11 are attainable only by people with a high degree of aesthetic and intellectual [151]development, or in any case only12 to a few, whereas the highest real good necessarily should be universal. No progress in democratic institutions can give an ass the ability to enjoy Beethoven’s symphonies or enable a pig, which cannot even appreciate the taste of oranges, to enjoy the sonnets of Dante and Petrarch or the poems of Shelley.13

Only gold members can continue reading. Log In or Register to continue