An Essay Concerning Human Understanding By John Locke Book II: Of Ideas, Chapters 12-33

63. A more particular Account of wrong Judgments.

But, to account more particularly for the misery that men often bring on themselves, notwithstanding that they do all in earnest pursue happiness, we must consider how things come to be represented to our desires under deceitful appearances: and that is by the judgment pronouncing wrongly concerning them. To see how far this reaches, and what are the causes of wrong judgment, we must remember that things are judged good or bad in a double sense: —


Secondly, But because not only present pleasure and pain, but that also which is apt by its efficacy or consequences to bring it upon us at a distance, is a proper object of our desires, and apt to move a creature that has foresight; therefore THINGS ALSO THAT DRAW AFTER THEM PLEASURE AND PAIN, ARE CONSIDERED AS GOOD AND EVIL.

64. No one chooses misery willingly, but only by wrong judgment.

The wrong judgment that misleads us, and makes the will often fasten on the worse side, lies in misreporting upon the various comparisons of these. The wrong judgment I am here speaking of is not what one man may think of the determination of another, but what every man himself must confess to be wrong. For, since I lay it for a certain ground, that every intelligent being really seeks happiness, which consists in the enjoyment of pleasure, without any considerable mixture of uneasiness; it is impossible any one should willingly put into his own draught any bitter ingredient, or leave out anything in his power that would tend to his satisfaction, and the completing of his happiness, but only by a WRONG JUDGMENT. I shall not here speak of that mistake which is the consequence of INVINCIBLE error, which scarce deserves the name of wrong judgment; but of that wrong judgment which every man himself must confess to be so.

65. Men may err on comparing Present and Future.

(I) Therefore, as to present pleasure and pain, the mind, as has been said, never mistakes that which is really good or evil; that which is the greater pleasure, or the greater pain, is really just as it appears. But, though present pleasure and pain show their difference and degrees so plainly as not to leave room to mistake; yet, WHEN WE COMPARE PRESENT PLEASURE OR PAIN WITH FUTURE, (which is usually the case in most important determinations of the will,) we often make wrong judgments of them; taking our measures of them in different positions of distance. Objects near our view are apt to be thought greater than those of a larger size that are more remote. And so it is with pleasures and pains: the present is apt to carry it; and those at a distance have the disadvantage in the comparison. Thus most men, like spendthrift heirs, are apt to judge a little in hand better than a great deal to come; and so, for small matters in possession, part with greater ones in reversion. But that this is a wrong judgment every one must allow, let his pleasure consist in whatever it will: since that which is future will certainly come to be present; and then, having the same advantage of nearness, will show itself in its full dimensions, and discover his wilful mistake who judged of it by unequal measures. Were the pleasure of drinking accompanied, the very moment a man takes off his glass, with that sick stomach and aching head which, in some men, are sure to follow not many hours after, I think nobody, whatever pleasure he had in his cups, would, on these conditions, ever let wine touch his lips; which yet he daily swallows, and the evil side comes to be chosen only by the fallacy of a little difference in time. But, if pleasure or pain can be so lessened only by a few hours' removal, how much more will it be so by a further distance to a man that will not, by a right judgment, do what time will, i. e. bring it home upon himself, and consider it as present, and there take its true dimensions? This is the way we usually impose on ourselves, in respect of bare pleasure and pain, or the true degrees of happiness or misery: the future loses its just proportion, and what is present obtains the preference as the greater. I mention not here the wrong judgment, whereby the absent are not only lessened, but reduced to perfect nothing; when men enjoy what they can in present, and make sure of that, concluding amiss that no evil will thence follow. For that lies not in comparing the greatness of future good and evil, which is that we are here speaking of; but in another sort of wrong judgment, which is concerning good or evil, as it is considered to be the cause and procurement of pleasure or pain that will follow from it.

66. Causes of our judging amiss when we compare present pleasure and pain with future.

The cause of our judging amiss, when we compare our present pleasure or pain with future, seems to me to be THE WEAK AND NARROW CONSTITUTION OF OUR MINDS. We cannot well enjoy two pleasures at once; much less any pleasure almost, whilst pain possesses us. The present pleasure, if it be not very languid, and almost none at all, fills our narrow souls, and so takes up the whole mind that it scarce leaves any thought of things absent: or if among our pleasures there are some which are not strong enough to exclude the consideration of things at a distance, yet we have so great an abhorrence of pain, that a little of it extinguishes all our pleasures. A little bitter mingled in our cup, leaves no relish of the sweet. Hence it comes that, at any rate, we desire to be rid of the present evil, which we are apt to think nothing absent can equal; because, under the present pain, we find not ourselves capable of any the least degree of happiness. Men's daily complaints are a loud proof of this: the pain that any one actually feels is still of all other the worst; and it is with anguish they cry out, — 'Any rather than this: nothing can be so intolerable as what I now suffer.' And therefore our whole endeavours and thoughts are intent to get rid of the present evil, before all things, as the first necessary condition to our happiness; let what will follow. Nothing, as we passionately think, can exceed, or almost equal, the uneasiness that sits so heavy upon us. And because the abstinence from a present pleasure that offers itself is a pain, nay, oftentimes a very great one, the desire being inflamed by a near and tempting object, it is no wonder that that operates after the same manner pain does, and lessens in our thoughts what is future; and so forces us, as it were blindfold, into its embraces.

67. Absent good unable to counterbalance present uneasiness.

Add to this, that absent good, or, which is the same thing, future pleasure, — especially if of a sort we are unacquainted with, — seldom is able to counterbalance any uneasiness, either of pain or desire, which is present. For, its greatness being no more than what shall be really tasted when enjoyed, men are apt enough to lessen that; to make it give place to any present desire; and conclude with themselves that, when it comes to trial, it may possibly not answer the report or opinion that generally passes of it: they having often found that, not only what others have magnified, but even what they themselves have enjoyed with great pleasure and delight at one time, has proved insipid or nauseous at another; and therefore they see nothing in it for which they should forego a present enjoyment. But that this is a false way of judging, when applied to the happiness of another life, they must confess; unless they will say, God cannot make those happy he designs to be so. For that being intended for a state of happiness, it must certainly be agreeable to every one's wish and desire: could we suppose their relishes as different there as they are here, yet the manna in heaven will suit every one's palate. Thus much of the wrong judgment we make of present and future pleasure and pain, when they are compared together, and so the absent considered as future.

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