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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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In the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century revolu-
tions of life and thought, there are marked changes
in the exploration and uses of the conceptions of hap-
piness and pleasure. The end point is, of course, the
utilitarian philosophy which raised these concepts to
the pinnacle of ethical theory by the beginning of the
nineteenth century, which identified happiness with
pleasure and which made maximum surplus of pleasure
over pain the human goal. To see these centuries in
this light is to look for the intellectual movement which
made happiness into utility, utility into pleasure, de-
tached pleasure from other ends and relations and left
it theoretically supreme—only then to find itself un-
certain about its identity. In this account, what hap-
pened to happiness is the overall story; what happened
to pleasure inner detail.

The concept of happiness became increasingly at-
tached to the growing liberalism with its secular and
worldly mood, its intense individualism, its scientific
orientation, and its libertarian social outlook. The
secular characterized especially the content of happi-
ness, associating the concept with worldly success,
pursuit of wealth, power, and prestige. The scientific
orientation strengthened the critical mood in the
breakdown of traditions, and made room for the hope
of progress. The libertarian element released individual
energies. But it was the whole individualist foundation
in the economic and social relations that had the
strongest impact in political and ethical theory. The
social contract theory for understanding the basis and
function of government is only an extreme instance
of the increasingly prevalent view that an individual
is bound only by that to which he has directly or
indirectly consented. Institutions thus came increas-
ingly to be regarded as instruments for the individual's
well-being as reckoned by individual judgment and
determined by individual will.

Nevertheless, the nation state as it emerged was not
given the task of providing for the happiness of its
citizens. This goal, which Aristotle had assigned for
political organization, had long receded. In the inter-
vening centuries the conception of man as sunk in
original sin put earthly happiness out of reach, and
at best the laws of a society could keep human nature
in check sufficiently to maintain some social order.
Then the rise of the new political theory, as in
Machiavelli, substituted power for the good in tradi-
tional ethics, as the characteristic aim of the state. This
was indeed its impact from the point of view of the
rulers. But from the perspective of the ruled, the aim
is better seen in Hobbes, where emphasis falls on the
need of individuals for peace and order and the neces-
sary conditions for the pursuit of their individual aims.
These conditions, including protection of life and
property, guarantee of contract performance, and so
on, are seen as natural laws which reason leads men
to accept. Nevertheless, as states achieved greater
stability and economic advance brought greater pros-
perity, and as the growth of scientific knowledge en-
hanced men's hope of greater control of their environ-
ment and their lives, the aims of organized society
themselves advanced in theory from minimal condi-
tions of order to ensuring conditions of progress and
the pursuit of happiness. If Locke in the seventeenth
century assumed that the protection of property was
equivalent to securing the common good, Jefferson in
the late eighteenth century replaced it with the pursuit
of happiness as an inalienable right in the Declaration
of Independence. And though it did not get into the
federal constitution, it yet retained some occasional
hold in legal decisions to strike down restraints and to
preserve freedom of contract and freedom to labor.
In general, the idea of progress itself, soon entrenched
in the Western liberal outlook, carried the implication
of greater instrumentalities and greater human sensi-
tivity productive of more general happiness.

The curve of rising expectations can be traced also
in the imaginative projection of the good society found
in the succession of utopias—from Thomas More's
Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1624)


to the early nineteenth-century visions of Fourier,
Robert Owen, and Saint-Simon. Utopias generally
embody a conception of the happy life, whether it is
a fixed pattern, as in the earlier forms, or whether it
has internal room for change, as the later ones do.
Utopias also pinpoint the miseries of the time against
which they are directed, as More laments the state of
the dispossessed peasantry; or they rebel against a
perennial repression, as many a utopia does in depict-
ing sexual liberation. Equally significant for the period
we are considering was the general rise of the idea
of progress, replacing older conceptions of decline
from an original paradise into increasing corruption.
Eventually, given the acceleration of social change and
the recognition that reality often moves faster than
dreams, the pursuit of happiness takes the form of
direct political programs, such as for governmental
intervention to alleviate miseries or develop educa-
tional institutions.

In ethical theory, the concept of happiness played
an increasingly prominent role. In Hobbes, happiness
is frankly equated with the satisfaction of appetite
whose direction identifies the good; and in Locke there
are the beginnings of a hedonism. Even more signifi-
cant, however, is the role happiness plays in the very
theories that are fighting a Hobbesian egoism by trying
to show a natural basis in man for sympathy. For here
too—in Shaftesbury or Butler or Hutcheson—the moral
field tends to get divided between self-love and benev-
olence. Self-love, as Butler describes it, is admittedly
concerned with the individual's well-being, the long-
range harmony of his desires. And benevolence, though
the moralist's eye is on justifying it to the individual,
is itself a concern for other people's happiness or their
rescue from misery. Even such rationalists as the
Cambridge Platonists include the duty of beneficence
among the moral axioms.

The moralistic objection to happiness has rarely been
to making others happy, only to limiting the happiness
effort to oneself. Kant, whose insight in such detail is
impeccable, points out that it is our duty to seek our
own perfection and others' happiness, not our happi-
ness and others' perfection. Again, moral philosophers,
having established to their own satisfaction that sym-
pathy is a spontaneous reaction in terms of which our
conception of virtue can be understood, began to look
for its underlying laws of movement—analogous to the
gravitational principle in the Newtonian model. Hume
and Adam Smith, rendering explicit what had been
emerging over the century, fixed on the notion of
utility: though men did not calculate utility in making
their moral judgments, the underlying principle was
the general conduciveness to happiness of the action
sympathized with or approved.

Utilitarian suggestions and developments had already
been numerous. Cumberland had talked of the com-
mon good in a utilitarian way as the supreme law;
Hutcheson used the phrase, “the greatest happiness of
the greatest numbers” in treating of the goodness of
actions; Gay had invoked the happiness of mankind
as a criterion of God's will, itself the criterion of virtue
(a path that Paley's utilitarianism was later to take).
And Priestley, whom Bentham acknowledged as a
source for the utility principle, in fact had a well-
developed theory of individual socialization so as to
identify his interest with a common good, effected by
natural sanctions set in the context of an ever-
improving environment including improving institu-
tions. In France, too, there had been a rapid rise of
happiness theory in ethics. Locke's hedonism had a
strong and direct influence there. Helvétius accounted
for moral standards by tracing their development out
of experiences of pleasure and pain, and Holbach's
theory of ethics started from the individual's pursuit
of his own happiness, and developed into a full utili-
tarianism. In Italy, Beccaria's influential analysis of
punishment rested squarely on utilitarian premisses.

To make Bentham's utilitarianism possible, happiness
had to be equated with pleasure or else to be built
out of pleasant experiences in some manner; pleasure
itself had also to be detached from its traditional inter-
relations with appetite and desire and action so as to
be able to serve as an isolable goal of human striving.
The first of these was readily accomplished. Since the
community was treated as a sum of individuals, every
statement about the common good or the general wel-
fare was in principle translatable into statements about
the happiness of individuals. Moreover, if happiness
meant anything more for the individual than pleasure
and the absence of pain, it would be a complex built
up by pleasurable and painful associations; this psy-
chological principle was adopted by the utilitarians
from David Hartley's formulation of association. The
second requirement—the detachment of pleasure so
that it could serve as an isolated goal—was the out-
come of a long scientific-philosophical development
beginning with Descartes.

Aristotle had regarded pleasure as completing or
perfecting an activity. The question facing the subse-
quent tradition was the more minute one of what this
completing consisted in. Aristotle saw it in almost
aesthetic-decorative terms, though he also gives it oc-
casionally an enhancing effect. Augustine, as noted
above, gave it the active role of the will consenting
to the course of action. Hobbes, when he distinguishes
pleasure from appetite as other than expected termi-
nus, regards it as an inner motion continuing and
helping vital action, and pain as frustrating or hinder-


ing it; in any case, pleasure and pain are intimately
related to appetitive and aversive processes. For
Leibniz and for Wolff, pleasure and pain are a direct
awareness of perfection or imperfection, that is, of
well-being or ill-being. In all of these, pleasure is still
tied to some process in relation to which it performs
a service of some kind and that service is its defining

Descartes started pleasure on its path to inde-
pendence, because his dualism attempted to apportion
experience to either the body or the soul. Some experi-
ences in the soul arise from it, but passions, like sensible
experiences, are excited from without. Although
Descartes still sees a teleological role for the passions
in disposing the soul to will things nature requires, this
is an external relation; pleasure and pain are becoming
self-contained items in the life of the soul. Thus Locke
treats them as simple ideas, and Hume regards bodily
pleasures and pains as original impressions arising in
the soul without any antecedent perception. In
Condillac, pleasure and pain are already the sole mo-
tives of action. In addition, pleasure and pain shared
in the general atomicity which characterized the
treatment of ideas in Locke or impressions in Hume.
Each experience of pleasure or pain is a single isolated
event, telling its whole story within itself. This ap-
proach is found not only in phenomenalism, where it
is of course strongest, but also in materialist inquiry
into motions: Hartley looks to faint vibrations left as
traces by sensory experiences, and mental pleasures and
pains are thus the traces of sensory pleasures and pains
excited associatively by recurrent circumstances.

It is not surprising, then, that Bentham starts out
with a psychological hedonism in which pleasure is
both the goal of all purposive behavior and the sole
good in it. Nor is it surprising that Bentham sets as
a feasible project to work out a felicific calculus in
which the value of a given lot of pleasure or pain would
be reckoned by measuring each of its components for
intensity, duration, certainty or uncertainty, propin-
quity or remoteness, fecundity, purity, and (where
more than one person is concerned) the extent or
number of persons affected. And he had the hope, at
least for a long time, that subtle units would be found
to make such calculation more precise. His applications
of his calculus are sometimes direct, for example, in
comparing the pains of punishment on offenders of
different sensibility; often, they are indirect, such as
the legislator's assumption that a law which increases
people's wealth will increase their happiness. And large
social problems such as the desirable form of property-
system are worked out as pleasure-problems: property
is but a name for socially supported expectations of
pleasure, hence the type of system desirable is the one
that experience shows will yield the greatest hap-
piness. Bentham at times used different formulations
for his central idea—the greatest happiness, the great-
est happiness of all, the greatest happiness of the
greatest number. The last of these has the widest

The amazing thing about Bentham's pleasure-pain
theory is the vast spread of work that it is made to
do: utilitarianism at the hands of Bentham and J. S.
Mill drew conclusions for major social, legal, and po-
litical institutions; for most areas of personal life and
human relations. A glance at the topics of Mill's
writings—liberty, representative government, eco-
nomics, the position of women, and so forth—is suffi-
ciently indicative. The central critical question is
therefore how far pleasure-pain theory was really doing
the work, or how far it was simply a garb for more
effective though more hidden working premisses.

There is no unanimity among the nineteenth- and
twentieth-century critics of hedonistic utilitarianism.
Some stopped at the outset with the felicific calculus,
argued that pleasure was an evanescent phenomenon,
that it could not be added or summed up. F. H.
Bradley, in a famous chapter of his Ethical Studies
(1876), thus cleared the way for his own self-realiza-
tionist ethics. Others, more interested in what utilitari-
anism accomplished in spite of its pleasure orientation,
thrust the latter aside; John Dewey, for example, took
the pleasure language to be an historical accident, and
the effective ethical thrust to lie in the empirical ex-
amination of consequences of actions and policies, for
solving the problem-situations to which they were
addressed. In a precisely opposite direction, Marx took
the pleasure theory to be the most significant theoret-
ical feature of Benthamism. In The German previous hit Ideology next hit
(written in 1846) he traces the development of the
philosophy of pleasure from the language of the
pleasure-loving court nobility to the official bourgeois
economic category of luxury. The bourgeoisie general-
ized pleasure, separated it from its specific contexts,
and analyzed all interpersonal relations as a process
of extracting pleasure. This reduction to utility Marx
sees as the ideological reflection of the bourgeois prac-
tice of exploitation, in which one aim, the increase of
money, becomes the measure of all value. Benthamism
is thus seen by Marx as the exaltation in ethics of a
view of private exploitation of the world.

Perhaps J. S. Mill too can be seen as a critic within
the utilitarian school itself of the pleasure theory. For
not only does he amend the calculus by insisting on
qualitative differences in pleasures, so that an intellec-
tual or aesthetic pleasure is not just quantitatively
equivalent to a large number of physical pleasures, but
he also broadens the conception of happiness. His


statement in Chapter II of his Utilitarianism (1863)
is worth quoting at length:

If by happiness be meant a continuity of highly pleasurable
excitement, it is evident enough that this is impossible. A
state of exalted pleasure lasts only moments, or in some
cases, and with some intermissions, hours or days, and is
the occasional brilliant flash of enjoyment, not its permanent
and steady flame. Of this the philosophers who have taught
that happiness is the end of life were as fully aware as those
who taunt them. The happiness which they meant was not
a life of rapture; but moments of such, in an existence made
up of few and transitory pains, many and various pleasures,
with a decided predominance of the active over the passive,
and having as the foundation of the whole, not to expect
more from life than it is capable of bestowing. A life thus
composed, to those who have been fortunate enough to
obtain it, has always appeared worthy of the name of hap-
piness. And such an existence is even now the lot of many,
during some considerable portion of their lives. The present
wretched education, and wretched social arrangements, are
the only real hindrance to its being attainable by almost

Mill's statement shows also the dominantly reformist
aims of the utilitarians, just as in other contexts his
recognition that happiness can come by association to
include virtuous activity as a constituent, not merely
as a means, shows his basic educational orientation.

It seems most likely that if the specific theory of
pleasure cannot bear the burden of all the work the
utilitarians expected of it, nevertheless the major his-
torical properties of pleasure—the secular and worldly
character, the individualistic emphasis, the rational
ordering tendency in the comparison of activities, the
critical aspect in the demand for a reckoning of policy
in terms of happiness whatever precisely it be—all
together supported effectively the variety of appli-
cations. But if this be so, the concept of pleasure,
precisely at its theoretical peak, loses its firm identity
and dissolves into a whole family of indices going
perhaps in different directions and generating different
enterprises. From this point on in the nineteenth cen-
tury and into the twentieth, the career of pleasure is
best studied in the variety of disciplines in which it
was varyingly used and interpreted.