F.H. Bradley’s criticisms of hedonistic moral theories



According to hedonistic ethical doctrines, pleasure is the only thing that is intrinsically good. Bradley attacks such doctrines in ‘Pleasure for Pleasure’s Sake’, Essay III of Ethical Studies (1876). Below I present some of his arguments.


Argument 1

One main target of his essay appears to be Bentham’s utilitarianism, according to which the aim of moral action is to produce the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Happiness is understood in terms of pleasure minus pain. Bentham tries to justify utilitarianism by establishing that rival theories of what morality consists in are inadequate. (See here for an explanation of his argument.) Bradley responds as follows (1876: 82):


(1)  In order for a moral theory to be adequate, it must account for the world of morality.

(2)  Even if it can be established that every existing alternative to a given moral theory is inadequate, this is not sufficient to establish that the theory accounts for the world of morality.

(3)  Bentham’s justification for utilitarian moral theory at best establishes that every existing alternative to it is inadequate.


(4)  Bentham’s justification for utilitarian moral theory is not sufficient to establish the adequacy of utilitarian moral theory.


Regarding premise (1), I think Bradley expects an adequate moral theory to fit with moral intuitions that strike people as non-negotiable. To abandon them is to abandon morality itself. (This is not a full explanation of the premise, but it is an importart part of what Bradley has in mind.)


Regarding premise (2), Bradley makes the point that one should not simply assume that some existing theory must be right.


Regarding premise (3), Bradley does not explicitly mention Bentham, but I take him to have Bentham’s argument in mind.


Argument 2

The second argument that I shall present attacks the idea that an individual’s happiness consists in having the greatest amount of pleasure (1876: 88-89).


(1)  An adequate definition of happiness must make happiness attainable but not necessarily attained.

(2)  A hedonistic definition of happiness either identifies happiness with having the sum of pleasures or with having the greatest amount of pleasure one can have at each moment.

(3)  If happiness is having the sum of pleasures, then it is unattainable.

(4)  If happiness is having the greatest amount of pleasure one can have at each moment, then the hedonistic theory of motivation entails that it is necessarily attained.

(5)   A hedonistic definition of happiness cannot, or cannot plausibly, be advocated without this theory of motivation. (Assumption)


(6)  A hedonistic definition of happiness is inadequate.


There are different sub-arguments for premise (3). One sub-argument is that however many pleasures one has, there are more to be had and so one cannot have the sum of pleasures. Another sub-argument is that a pleasure only exists when it is felt – afterwards it is merely an idea; to have the sum of all pleasures would be to have all of them now, including the ones from the past, which no longer exist; this is impossible. These arguments are difficult to assess, partly because the meaning of the term ‘the sum of pleasures’ is not fully clear.


Premise (4) refers to the theory that in deciding what to do, an individual aims to attain pleasure and avoid pain. Bradley’s premise looks questionable, because advocates of this theory could allow for miscalculation.


I have ascribed premise (5) to Bradley, because I do not see how his argument can succeed without it.


Argument 3

The third argument that I shall present is pursued mainly in the note to Essay III, rather than the essay itself.


(1)  Hedonistic accounts of morality say that pleasure is always good and pain is always evil.

(2)  Pleasure is not always good.

(3)  Pain is not always evil.


(4)  Hedonistic accounts of morality are false.


‘Always’ here means ‘necessarily’.

Bradley’s note begins by considering pain and then moves to pleasure.


Is pain always evil?

Bradley denies that we can say that pain on the whole is evil. His objection is that painful experiences can be helpful in the long run. For example, a student whose work is subject to criticism, criticism which reveals that much of it is poor quality, may experience emotional pain. But it might spur them to improve the quality of their work.


Bradley summarises his reflections on pain as follows: ‘pain is bad whenever it is not necessary as a condition of good.’ (1876: 119) Bradley generally identifies the good with self-realization. I will not try to explain what this is here.


Is pleasure always good?

Bradley makes a rough division of pleasures into pleasures of activity and passivity.


Pleasures of activity are those that come with doing something.

Pleasures of passivity are those which we do nothing to get.


Regarding pleasures of activity, he makes the following argument:

(1)  If the pleasure and the activity are a psychic whole, then the pleasure is good when the activity is good and the pleasure is bad when the activity is bad.

(2)  The pleasure and the activity are a psychic whole.


(3)  The pleasure is good when the activity is good and bad when the activity is bad.

Bradley does not explain what ‘a psychic whole’ is.


When is an activity good? Bradley says that, generally, an activity is good if:

(i)    It directly realizes the good will in a living man; or

(ii)  It indirectly increases life and thereby the possibility of a higher realization of good in a living man or in living men.

I have the impression that by ‘life’ he means vitality.


A pleasure of activity is bad, in contrast, when ‘in its immediate or ulterior results, it lowers the life of the individual, or of a larger totality, and so diminishes realization of good, or prevents a higher and fuller realization.’ (1876: 121)


Bradley decides to focus on sensuous satisfaction when analysing pleasures of passivity, leaving aside artistic pleasures. All reference to pleasures of passivity below is specifically to these.


He says that pleasures of passivity are good:

when ‘they increase a feeling of general content with one’s existence.’ (1876: 121)

Bradley says that this feeling is what is ordinarily called happiness. He argues that happiness is good from the following premises: existence is good; if existence is impaired without a certain thing, then that thing is also good (this premise is implicit); existence is impaired without happiness. He also says that happiness is good because it generally increases activity.


He says pleasures of passivity are bad:

(i)   If they produce special results that hinder the good; or

(ii)  If they contribute towards a habit of self-indulgence.


Bradley also allows for pleasures that are neither good nor bad. He gives the example of pleasure from drinking wine. Pleasure from some wine is good. Too much wine can contribute to a habit of self-indulgence. But there are also amounts in between which are neutral. One cannot say that pleasure from them is good, making some positive contribution to good will or vitality, or bad.


From his analysis of pleasure, it is clear that Bradley does not think pleasure to be always good.



Bradley, F. H. 1876. Ethical Studies. London: Henry. S. King & Co.