In a memorable passage near the beginning of ‘The Moral Philosopher and The Moral Life,’ William James asks us to imagine a world in which all our dearest social utopias are realized, and then to imagine that this world is offered to us at the price of one lost soul at the farthest edge of the universe suffering eternal, intense, lonely pain. Then he asks, ‘what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.’
I find this passage enormously interesting for a variety of reasons. We would have an impulse to grasp the utopian world, and that impulse is not inexplicable: we would be happier in such a world than we are now. The impulse is even morally defensible: James tells us later in the essay that, ‘[t]here is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest universe of good that we can see.’ (ibid., p. 158) Moreover, he acknowledges that our best ideals cannot be realized in this poor world without trampling some other ideals under foot. The realization of the values of good and sensitive people entails the frustration of the desires and goals of cruel and brutal people. Worse, institutions that are on the whole beneficial will have innocent victims; James mentions monogamous marriage as an example of such an institution. In a functioning democracy, these are frustrations that everyone must take in stride sometimes. So, should we then not grasp that utopia, that world without unemployment, without homelessness, where everyone has access to medical care, where racism and other forms of prejudice and oppression are known only from the history books, etc., etc.? Those commentators who read James as a kind of Utilitarian, must surely believe that James would advocate our grasping that ideal, that he would speak not merely of an impulse to clutch that happiness but of an obligation. But James is not a Utilitarian, and the passage under discussion occurs when James wants to distance himself from the Utilitarians. We have, he says, a capacity for quite specific emotions, capacities that cannot be explained in any simple way as the result of evolutionary selection for the survival of either the individual or the species. He does not mean the capacity for sympathy, though that too would come into play here. Sympathy enables us to vividly imagine the suffering of the lost tortured soul, to feel for it and, indeed, with it. But James means something else; he means a revulsion, an apprehension that to do a certain thing would be ‘hideous.’ To do what? To opt for the utopia? That is not what he says. To enjoy the utopia? Again, that is not what he says. There is nothing wrong with opting for or enjoying utopia if it can be had at no cost, or at a cost clearly bearable by those who are obliged to bear it, or if one is non-culpably ignorant of the price. What is hideous is ‘enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain.’
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