The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophers, Bristol: Thoemmes, 2002
Henry Sidgwick was born in Skipton, Yorkshire, to Mary Crofts and William Sidgwick, on 31 May 1838. He died, after a short illness, in Terling, Essex on 28 August 1900. Educated at home and in Blackheath until 1852, he was then enrolled at Rugby, where his mother and siblings relocated in 1853 (his father having died in 1841). At Rugby he came under the influence of Edward White Benson, then assistant master and later Sidgwick’s brother-in-law and Archbishop of Canterbury. Benson’s brand of moralistic Christianity exerted a strong influence on the young Sidgwick, and at Benson’s urging Sidgwick entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1855, studying both mathematics and classics. His membership and participation in the weekly meetings of the discussion group known as ‘The Apostles’ figured prominently in his intellectual development as an undergraduate, and its impact was lasting. In 1859 he graduated with both a first in the Classical Tripos and as 33rd Wrangler in the Mathematics Tripos. After graduation he was elected to a coveted Trinity Fellowship. Originally appointed as an Assistant Tutor in Classics in 1859, he was made lecturer in moral sciences in 1867 (and again in 1869), then Praelector of Moral and Political Philosophy in 1875 and eventually Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy in 1883 (a position which he held until shortly before his death).
His writings range over a wide spectrum, including history, poetry, literature, education, legislation and politics, though his most important contributions are in philosophy. During his lifetime he published five books, The Methods of Ethics (1874), The Principles of Political Economy (1883), Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886), The Elements of Politics (1891) and Practical Ethics (1898), in addition to many articles and reviews in both popular and scholarly journals. Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations (1902), Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau (1902), The Development of European Polity (1903), Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses (1904) and Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays (1905) were all published posthumously. Sidgwick also devoted much energy to the investigation of psychical phenomena, the Society for Psychical Research (which he co-founded in 1882) and the reform of higher education. With Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (née Balfour), whom he married in 1876, he worked to promote higher education for women, one result of which was the founding of Newnham College at Cambridge in 1875, one of the first women’s colleges in England. He received honorary degrees from the Universities of Oxford, Edinburgh, Glasgow and St Andrews.
In the early 1860s Sidgwick began studying the works of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s utilitarianism and later his views on women were particularly attractive to Sidgwick (though in his view Mill’s System of Logic, 1843, was his only work of lasting value). But he was no disciple and he later distanced himself intellectually from Mill. His break with Mill, however, was the least of his worries. He described the decade after 1859 as his years of ‘storm and stress’. During this time Sidgwick began to doubt the truth of Christianity, which led him to undertake studies in Hebrew, Arabic, theology, biblical exegesis, history and philosophy, eventually committing himself to the latter, which he practised at Trinity College until just before his death.
There was one interruption. By 1869 Sidgwick’s doubts about the tenets of the Church of England could be suppressed no longer, and he resigned both his lectureship and his Fellowship on the grounds that he could no longer subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, then required of all college Fellows. The resignation seems to have had very little impact on the general movement to eliminate subscription, but thinking about it did have a large impact on Sidgwick’s own intellectual development. In an autobiographical fragment included in Henry Sidgwick; A Memoir he notes: ‘I did my very best to decide the question methodically on general principles, but I found it very difficult, and I may say that it was while struggling with the difficulty thence arising that I went through a good deal of the thought that was ultimately systematized in the Methods of Ethics’ (Sidgwick and Sidgwick, 1906, p. 38).
The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription, the pamphlet published shortly after his resignation explaining the reasoning behind his decision, provides us with insight into Sidgwick’s thoughts about the duty that the ‘deviating ... element in the religious community owe to the rest of that community’ (p. 1). In particular, Sidgwick is concerned to determine the extent to which doctrinal dissenters (especially clerics) should be permitted to express their opinions, whatever their content, and at what point these dissenting opinions make it obligatory for them to cease membership of the community. What is apparent from the start is his emphasis on the fact that the rules of common sense, including veracity and good faith, are unable to provide us with a complete method of reasoning by which to decide these questions. We must search elsewhere for a method.
It is with the search for such a method that Sidgwick begins the book for which he is most famous, The Methods of Ethics. The treatise is long, trenchant and densely argued; its range is vast and its main argument not always clear, but it is no less a masterpiece. The book went through seven editions as the argument was refined and improved in the light of criticism. The plan of the treatise is to ‘expound as clearly and as fully as my limits will allow the different methods of ethics that I find in our common moral reasoning; to point out their mutual relations; and where they seem to conflict, to define the issue as much as possible’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 14). The basic difficulty at the core of ethics is that the common man in reasoning about what to do appeals to a ‘loose combination or confusion of methods’ (ibid., p. 102) that deliver plural and conflicting reasons for action. The common man is thus left unable to balance these reasons so as to generate unique, rational dictates. In contrast, the philosopher ‘seeks unity of principle, and consistency of method at the risk of paradox’ (ibid., p. 6). The moral philosopher attempts to furnish the common individual with a unified principle and a systematic method in order to eliminate the confusion to which the application of conflicting methods and principles gives rise. The moral philosopher thus aims at a ‘completely satisfactory’ method of reasoning (ibid.).
At the outset of The Methods of Ethics Sidgwick defines a method of ethics as ‘any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings “ought” – or what it is “right” for them – to do, or seek to realize by voluntary action’ (1907, p. 1). Sidgwick sees three methods as worthy of consideration, namely, rational egoism, dogmatic intuitionism and utilitarianism. Rational egoism is the view that, if rational, ‘an agent regards quantity of consequent pleasure and pain to himself alone important in choosing between alternatives of action; and seeks always the greatest attainable surplus of pleasure over pain’ (ibid., p. 95). Dogmatic intuitionism, by contrast, holds that we are rationally required to conform ‘to certain rules or dictates of Duty unconditionally prescribed’ (ibid., p. 96), some of which make no reference to consequences. For utilitarianism, ‘the conduct which, under any given circumstances, is objectively right, is that which will produce the greatest amount of happiness on the whole; that is, taking into account all whose happiness is affected by conduct’ (ibid., p. 411). Three of the four books in The Methods of Ethics are devoted to a careful analysis of the three methods, taking them to be views about the ultimate reasons for action. The aim is to show that dogmatic intuitionism can be reconciled with utilitarianism, the basis of which is a set of fundamental intuitions, while claiming that both rational egoism and utilitarianism represent equally plausible and yet rival accounts of what we have most reason to do. He concludes that there is a ‘Dualism of Practical Reason’. Although this argument is the central focus of The Methods of Ethics, it also contains significant discussions of such issues as: meta-ethics, free will, pleasure and desire, and the distinction between principles and methods.
It is easy to see The Methods of Ethics, at least in part, as a defence of utilitarianism, despite its author’s protestations to the contrary, especially since he accepted and applied utilitarianism to various practical questions throughout his life. Whatever the case may be, it does present a historically unique and philosophically interesting account of the doctrine. Whereas previous utilitarians endorsed metaphysical naturalism, Sidgwick’s meta-ethics is decidedly non-naturalist. Traditionally utilitarianism was bound up with the epistemic doctrine of empiricism, but this epistemology Sidgwick rejects, opting for epistemic (rational) intuitionism. And for utilitarians working before him, the main opposition to the doctrine was the morality of common sense. He rejects this opposition, arguing that the two views can be reconciled with each other and that the chief opponent to utilitarianism is rational egoism. It is in his recognition of the fact that utilitarianism can be combined with the metaphysical, epistemological and moral doctrines of its rivals that Sidgwick’s genius lies.
Sidgwick’s version of meta-ethical non-naturalism is motivated by the perception that terms such as ‘ought’ and ‘right’ and other cognates cannot be given an adequate naturalistic analysis, a claim he thinks is justified by reference to ‘the reflections of individuals on their practical judgements and reasonings’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 25). Instead, he holds that ‘the fundamental notion represented by the word “ought” or “right,” which such judgements contain expressly or by implication ... [is] essentially different from all notions representing facts of physical or psychical experience’ (ibid., p. 25). Because what these terms express is ‘too elementary to admit of any formal definition’ (ibid., p. 32), it can be clarified only ‘by determining as precisely as possible its relation to other notions with which it can be connected in ordinary thought’ (p. 33). The notions connected with ought-judgements include the following: that one is capable of bringing about that which one ought to bring about (ibid.); that the action demanded is a dictate or requirement of reason so that ‘in rational beings as such this cognition gives an impulse or motive to action’ (p. 34; see also p. 77); that ‘the conduct approved is ‘really’ right – i.e. that it cannot, without error, be disapproved by any other mind’ (p. 27; see also p. 33); ‘that the moral truth apprehended is implicitly conceived to be intrinsically universal’ (p. 34). Thus Sidgwick’s account of moral judgement is at once non-reductionist, cognitivist, formalist and internalist, linking it up with the claim that the methods are competing accounts of what reason or rationality objectively requires.
For Sidgwick, ‘right’ and ‘good’ differ in this way: when we recognize something to be right there is ‘an authoritative prescription to do it: but when we judge conduct to be good, it is not yet clear that we ought to prefer this kind of good to all other things’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 106). As for ultimate good, here too Sidgwick offers a non-naturalist account, though many commentators have disputed this. For after rejecting several different naturalistic accounts of ultimate good, Sidgwick raises the possibility that it can be defined as ‘what [someone] would now desire and seek on the whole if all the consequences of all the different lines of conduct open to him were accurately foreseen and adequately realized in imagination at the present point of time’ (ibid., p. 112). But he rejects this view on the grounds that ‘the ideal element is entirely interpretable in terms of fact, actual or hypothetical, and does not introduce any judgement of value fundamentally distinct from judgements relating to existence; – still less any “dictate of Reason”’ (ibid.). This is problematic for Sidgwick because it seems ‘more in accordance with common sense to recognize ... that the calm desire for my “good on the whole” is authoritative; and therefore carries with it implicitly a rational dictate to aim at this end, if in any case a conflicting desire urges the will in the opposite direction’ (ibid., p. 122). In other words, the former definition of ‘my good on the whole’ cannot account for the sense in which claims about ‘good’ are normative or requirements of reason. The more appropriate interpretation thus incorporates the normativity of claims about what is ultimately good for me: ‘what I should practically desire if my desires were in harmony with reason, assuming my own existence alone to be considered’ (ibid.). Turning now to an account of ultimate good on the whole, Sidgwick argues that it must ‘be taken to mean what I as a rational being should desire and seek to realize, assuming myself to have an equal concern for all existence’ (ibid., p. 112). Substantively speaking, he maintains that the good or well-being or happiness consists in ‘desirable conscious or sentient life’ (ibid., p. 396) or ‘consciousness on the whole desirable’ (p. 397). Thus, whenever he speaks of promoting either individual or universal well-being he is best interpreted as advocating the promotion of desirable states of consciousness.
Although Sidgwick’s meta-ethics is non-naturalist he does not appear to endorse the view that there are moral properties populating some ethereal, extra-sensible realm, access to which is provided via some sort of moral faculty or moral sense. In the Preface to the first edition, for example, he explains that he takes it to be the case that in any given circumstance there is something that it is ‘right or reasonable to do, and that this may be known’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1874, p. v). But he backs off from any ontological conclusions, stating that ‘I make no further assumption as to the nature of the object of moral knowledge’ (ibid., p. vi). Elsewhere, he says that ethics lacks ‘some department of actual existence for its subject matter’ (ibid., p. 2). Whether his ‘quietism’ on this front can be sustained remains to be seen, and it may only be decided when we understand his epistemological leanings.
Epistemologically speaking, Sidgwick adopts philosophical intuitionism, the ambition of which is to arrive at ‘one or more principles absolutely and undeniably true and evident’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 102), or a set of ‘self-evident principles relating to “what ought to be”’ (ibid., n. 1). He describes them as propositions whose ‘truth is known immediately, and not as a result of reasoning’ (ibid., p. 211); they are, he says, ‘immediately known to be true’ (p. 98). Their truth is ‘manifest’ (ibid., p. 379); they are a matter of ‘apprehension’ (p. 383). This position is distinguished from two other forms of intuitionism, perceptional and dogmatic. The former view holds that in each situation of choice what is right is simply ‘seen’ or ‘apprehended’ (ibid., p. 99, see also p. 100), discarding ‘as superfluous all modes of reasoning to moral conclusions’ (p. 100). Dogmatic intuitionism states that ‘we can discern certain general rules [which are implicit in the moral reasoning of ordinary people] with really clear and finally valid intuition’ (ibid., p. 101). With this view, Sidgwick has some sympathy and he devotes Book III of The Methods of Ethics to a thorough examination of it, but in the end he rejects it. Sidgwick holds that only philosophical intuitionism can deliver a fully rational synthesis of morality, because it offers us a set of self-evident axioms that explain why a certain set of practical norms is the correct one, even though the axioms themselves are of ‘too abstract a nature, and too universal in their scope, to enable us to ascertain by immediate application of them what we ought to do in any particular case’ (ibid., p. 379). Sidgwick does talk of deducing the rules of common sense from self-evident truths, but, strictly speaking, he cannot hold this view since he seems to think that (at least the main aspects of) utilitarianism can be deduced from the philosophical axioms, even though it (like rational egoism) is often erroneously treated as self-evident. The former view, in turn, systematizes and corrects common sense morality. Since he thinks inituitionism is the correct epistemology by which to justify utilitarianism, he also believes there is no conflict between intuitionism and utilitarianism.
The question remaining is whether it really is possible to arrive at any proposition one could consider a philosophical intuition or self-evident truth. Sidgwick thinks we can and it is this search that is at the heart of The Methods of Ethics. His discussion of common sense morality or dogmatic intuitionism marks the beginning of his search. After an exhaustive survey of the various rules of common sense, e.g. justice, veracity, fidelity to promises, and others, he concludes that ‘we have in each case found that from such regulation of conduct as the common sense of mankind really supports, no proposition can be elicited, which, when fairly contemplated, even appears to have the characteristic of a scientific axiom’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 360). Hence dogmatic intuitionism is false. The rules of common sense cannot furnish us with axioms because they fail the four conditions ‘which would establish a significant proposition, apparently self-evident, in the highest degree of certainty attainable’ (ibid., p. 338). The proposition must be ‘clear and precise’ (ibid.). It must be ‘ascertained by careful reflection’ (ibid.). It must be consistent with other axioms considered self-evident (ibid., p. 341). Finally, there must be little disagreement regarding its truth (ibid.). Because many of the rules of common sense are unclear, or clear but disputed, or in conflict with each other, they not self-evident. It does not follow from this claim, however, that the rules or norms of common sense are therefore without use. Indeed, Sidgwick does think that, despite not offering self-evident axioms, ‘the morality of common sense may still be perfectly adequate to give practical guidance to common people in common circumstances’ (ibid., p. 361).
Sidgwick does find at least five axioms outside of common sense. Disagreement over the number of axioms exists, but Sidgwick appears to endorse at least the following five: ‘it cannot be right for A to treat B in a manner in which it would be wrong for B to treat A, merely on the ground that they are different individuals’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 380); ‘the mere difference of priority and posteriority in time is not a reasonable ground for having more regard to the consciousness of one moment than to that of another’ (p. 381); ‘the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may say so) of the Universe, than the good of any other’ (p. 382); ‘as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally ... not merely at a particular part of it’ (ibid.); ‘each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him’ (ibid.). These are not practical guides, given their highly theoretical nature; rather, the apprehension of these fundamental truths functions as the ‘permanent basis of the common conviction that the fundamental precepts of morality are essentially reasonable’ (ibid., p. 383).
Sidgwick appears to think that from the axioms he can deduce (at least some of the main aspects of) utilitarianism. After outlining the above five intuitions, he states that ‘utilitarianism is ... the final form into which Intuitionism tends to pass, when the demand for really self-evident first principles is rigorously pressed’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 388; see also p. 387). At the conclusion of his discussion of ultimate good, he states again that ‘the Intuitional method rigorously applied yields as its final result the doctrine of pure Universalistic Hedonism, – which it is convenient to denote by a single word, Utilitarianism’ (ibid., pp. 406–407). How he deduces utilitarianism from the five philosophical intuitions (or self-evident axioms) is far from clear, however, and the relative lack of attention to a deduction is mysterious. From where does the injunction to maximize come? What is the status of the claim that happiness is the sole value that morality ought to promote? Interpreters have wrestled with the epistemology that underlies Sidgwick’s establishment of utilitarianism. On the face of it, he seems committed to a form of foundationalism, which grounds all beliefs in certain basic, non-inferentially justified beliefs. It seems clear that the axioms are there to serve as the basic propositions of morality, from which utilitarianism and many of the principles of common sense are deduced.
Other interpreters see Sidgwick as endorsing the view that coherence with common sense morality is the main justification of utilitarianism. In Book IV of The Methods of Ethics Sidgwick aims to show that utilitarianism
sustains the general validity of the current moral judgements [of common sense], and thus supplements the defects which reflection finds in the intuitive recognition of their stringency; and at the same time affords a principle of synthesis, and a method for binding the unconnected and occasionally conflicting principles of common moral reasoning into a complete and harmonious system.
(The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 422)
The coherentist interpretation gathers steam from the fact that he seems to think that because utilitarianism can explain, systematize and make coherent the disparate and indefinite rules and judgements of common sense morality, it consequently gains (some sort of) credibility in the process. He also says that the argument that he uses to bring the intuitionist over to utilitarianism is one that ‘allows the validity, to a certain extent, of the maxims already accepted, and on the other hand shows them to be not absolutely valid, but needed to be controlled and completed by some more comprehensive principle’ (ibid., p. 420). If what Sidgwick means by giving the claims of common sense some level of validity that they have probative value, then the coherentist reading of the text will have more power. But if so, then Sidgwick has to make a case for why certain common sense claims should be jettisoned rather than others, without appealing to the axioms which Sidgwick often says are intended to determine which judgements are true (ibid., pp. 378–9 and 374) or utilitarianism. Furthermore, the coherentist reading has to explain the appeal to and search for self-evident truths. After all, why search for non-inferentially justified belief of intuitions if one is a coherentist? If we reject the claim that common sense intuitions have probative value, then the coherentist reading seems less likely, and we may be forced into interpreting Sidgwick as giving an ad hominem argument against common sense morality (which would interpret the independent validity granted to common sense as referring to its practical value). The relationship between the different and conflicting epistemic strands or ‘proofs’ of utilitarianism in The Methods of Ethics has vexed interpreters, and more work has to be done before we can make any final claims about the success of Sidgwick’s ‘proof’ of the principle of utility.
At any rate, on Sidgwick’s view, utilitarianism is best regarded as a criterion of rightness, while the rules of common sense are best seen as part of a decision procedure, since they are ‘perfectly adequate to give practical guidance to common people in common circumstances’ (p. 361). He thus arrives at a historically unique form of utilitarianism, only hinted at by previous utilitarians (especially J.S. Mill and Alexander Smith). According to him, the acceptance of utilitarianism does not
imply that Universal Benevolence is the only right or always best motive. For ... it is not necessary that the end which gives the criterion of rightness should always be the end at which we consciously aim: and if experience shows that the general happiness will be more satisfactorily attained if men frequently act from other motives than pure universal philanthropy, it is obvious that these other motives are reasonably preferred on Utilitarian principles.
(The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 413)
Sidgwick is not sanguine about utilitarianism as a decision procedure, because of the difficulties, such as bias, time constraints and so on (ibid., pp. xxi and 460–74) associated with empirical calculation. The correct motives and rules that serve as a decision procedure are those handed down by common sense morality, with some necessarily piecemeal alterations and emendations. Acting on these motives and in accord with these rules, he thinks, will in the long term best promote happiness, even if in some individual cases acting on these rules or motives may lead to an act that is less than the best available. Because conforming to the rules of common sense morality promotes happiness over the long run, he thinks there is no opposition between them and utilitarianism.
Although Sidgwick thought he was able to move the exponent of common sense morality over to utilitarianism, he felt he had no such luck with the rational egoist. The difficulty is that, although utilitarianism can be furnished with a rational basis and reconciled with the morality of common sense, rational egoism appears as an equally plausible doctrine regarding what we have most reason to do. As a result, we are forced to ‘admit an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct; and from this admission it would seem to follow that the apparently intuitive operation of Practical Reason, manifested in these contradictory judgments, is after all illusory’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 508). Despite thinking this conclusion quite important, Sidgwick’s articulation of the precise source of the clash is unclear and has consequently occasioned some controversy among commentators. At times, he suggests that rational egoism rests on a fundamental intuition, like utilitarianism, though this is not obvious on a survey of the philosophical intuitions he discusses. At the end of the book, he says that underlying the dualism of practical reason is the view that, since the
distinction between any one individual and any other is real and fundamental ... ‘I’ am concerned with the quality of my existence as an individual in a sense, fundamentally important, in which I am not concerned with the quality of the existence of other individuals ... [and] this distinction is ... to be taken as fundamental in determining the ultimate end of rational action for an individual
(The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 498)
Although this might be true, it is unclear what the upshot of this claim is, normatively speaking. If it is supposed to ground egoism, it comes dangerously close to committing the is/ought fallacy. In ‘Some Fundamental Ethical Controversies’, while commenting on some of the important themes in The Methods of Ethics, Sidgwick states the source of the dualism again, but slightly differently: utilitarianism is at odds with rational egoism because ‘it would be irrational to sacrifice any portion of my own happiness unless the sacrifice is to be somehow compensated by an equivalent addition to my own happiness’ (ibid., p. 483). However, this claim is entirely undefended, not to mention a veritable assertion of rational egoism itself. The only defence of rational egoism we are left with is the fact that there is a ‘preponderant assent’ to the view in ‘the common sense of mankind’ (p. 483).
The aim from the outset of The Methods of Ethics is to find a decision procedure that does not generate ‘conflicting conclusions’ of the kind that are commonly arrived at by the common individual in ethical deliberation, in part due to his or her use of inadequately related principles and methods. If a single, unified method of moral deliberation could be arrived at, then the ‘conflicting conclusions’ could be eliminated. Since The Methods of Ethics fails to do this it fails at its central task. There is no unified theory of reason and thus no method of ethics capable of guiding us in practice.
Although Sidgwick despaired of finding a solution to this dualism, he did not lose faith in morality or in the fecundity of philosophy. He frequently championed utilitarianism. In the essay cited above, he wrote that, even if the dualism of practical reason cannot be solved, ‘I should doubtless still, through sympathy and sentiments protective of social well-being, imparted by education and sustained by communication with other men, feel a strong desire for the general observance of rules conducive to general happiness’ (The Methods of Ethics, 1907, p. 484). He put the doctrine to work in his writings on both political economy and politics. The Principles of Political Economy is a brilliant effort at constructing principles of distributive justice based on the principle of utility, while The Elements of Politics aims to determine the right constitution and form of government on roughly utilitarian grounds (together with a few assumptions about the nature of human beings). Nor did Sidgwick lose faith in the systematizing and reformative powers of philosophy. In Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations he maintained the view that the chief occupation for philosophy was to systematize the notions, knowledge and methods of the sciences and other cognate disciplines (including ethics). The job of philosophy and the philosopher is to get behind the methods and presuppositions of the sciences and other disciplines to arrive ‘at knowledge of the underlying reality’ (Philosophy, p. 17), a marked contrast with the philosophical aims prominent in the twentieth century. One of his chief interests was the metaphysical doctrines of Kant, Green, Spencer and others. He produced numerous papers on Kant discussing his critical philosophy and his philosophy of mathematics.
The Methods of Ethics includes very few references to specific philosophers and their ethical theories. This is deliberate, for it is certainly not the case that Sidgwick was unaware of the history of moral philosophy. Indeed, like no moral philosopher before him Sidgwick knew the history of ethics from the Greeks through the medieval period and into (especially) the modern period of British moral philosophy. The Methods of Ethics is explicitly an exercise in reconciliation or synthesis of positions historically thought to be antithetical to each other. (The influence of Kant, Clarke, Plato, Aristotle, Whewell and Butler are clear.) Nowhere is this more obvious than in Sidgwick’s claim to have reconciled those traditional foes, common sense and utilitarianism. Sidgwick’s desire to act as a great synthesizer results from his general view of the main problem of modern moral philosophy. In Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers he explains that once moral philosophy gains its independence from religion, ‘reflective persons would naturally be led to seek for an ethical method that – relying solely on the common reason and common moral experience of mankind – might claim universal acceptance from all sects’ (1931, p. 157). In combining, for example, Kant’s reflections on the importance of universality and rationality for ethics and Aristotle’s methodic treatment of common sense morality, we can see Sidgwick aiming for a method that might make such a claim.
The improvement of moral reasoning was for Sidgwick not an end in itself; rather, it was a means of helping us reach more reliable conclusions in practice. Despite his concern in The Methods of Ethics with knowledge rather than practice, the latter was never far from his view: ‘my treatment of the subject [of ethics], is, in a sense, more practical than that of many moralists, since I am occupied from first to last in considering how conclusions are to be reached in the familiar matter of our common daily life and actual practice’ (1907, p. vi). Many of his mature reflections on ethics in practice are collected in the last book published during his lifetime, Practical Ethics. Sidgwick’s thoughts on practical ethics are at once sophisticated and modern, making it a wonder that they have not received a more thorough treatment. He knew all too well the pitfalls associated with mounting practical reform; as a consequence he thought it best, when doing practical ethics, to avoid discussion of the ultimate good or the basic requirements of reason. Instead, the best place to remain is the region of ‘middle axioms’, the same axioms he claimed utilitarianism could systematize and employ as a decision procedure. Shrewdly, he begins his discussion by emphasizing the need to start with values shared by those holding different comprehensive moral doctrines. Consequently, one of the goals of practical ethics is ‘to bring into more clear and consistent form the broad and general agreement as to the particulars of morality which we find among persons’ (Practical Ethics, 1998, p. 7). Naturally, the systematizing has to be done without discussing the ultimate requirements of reason and will be necessarily ‘rough and approximate.’ The task of systematizing is the beginning rather than the end of the task for the moral philosopher qua practical ethicist. In order to determine the values that form the basis of agreement, we must examine the values that various groups of subcultures in society espouse. Once we have a set of agreed upon values that are relatively systematic, we employ it in considering various modern moral problems.
Like contemporary philosophers, Sidgwick is most concerned with moral issues that arise in the professions. In particular, he is concerned to determine the tolerable level of ‘divergence of the current practical standards of particular sections of the community ... from the common moral ideal the community as a whole still maintains’ (Practical Ethics, 1909, p. 11). This is not something that can be determined a priori, according to Sidgwick, and so we must rely on what he dubs ‘Casuistry’: a form of reasoning that sets out to determine ‘how far, in the particular circumstances of certain classes of persons, the common good demands a special interpretation or modification of some generally accepted rule’ (ibid., p. 12). On the face of it, reverting to casuistry is dubious, given the potential for abuse. As a defence against this, he urges that the moral philosopher should not be the only one to carry out the casuistical reasoning in isolation from others; rather, his approach is decidedly ecumenical. The input for the reasoning comes form myriad sources, with the philosopher playing only one among many important roles. Thus he also includes in the ‘broad and comprehensive basis’ that helps determine the norms of practical ethics: ‘the judgements of practical men as to what ought to be done in particular circumstances’ (ibid., p. 21); ‘the moral judgements and especially the spontaneous unreflected judgements on particular cases ... of persons ... whose earnest and predominant aim is to do their duty’ (p. 22); and others. But he does not expect the widening of the parties in moral deliberation to have a conservative effect; it aims to move beyond ‘the platitudes of copybook morality’ (ibid., p. 7) and avoid falling into what is merely traditional and parochial (pp. 26–30). Importantly, practical moral decision making must take off from values about which people holding different views on the good life can agree.
In several of the papers in Practical Ethics, Sidgwick develops the implications of the account for such diverse problems as the demand to promote culture, luxury, strife, clerical veracity and religious subscription (a topic with which he was concerned throughout his life). The final paper in the volume takes up with characteristic care and acumen the problem of unreasonable action or akrasia, a paper which is notable if only because the topic received almost no attention between Aristotle’s treatment of it in the Nicomachean Ethics and Sidgwick’s time.
It is fitting that Sidgwick’s intellectual career ends where it begins, in thinking about what one ought to do now in the world as one finds it. To this problem he had most wanted to dedicate his life. As he wrote in his diary in 1887:
I have mixed up the personal and the general questions because every speculation ... ends, with me, in a practical problem, ‘What is to be done here and now.’ That is the question which I must answer; whereas as to the riddle of the universe – I have never had the presumption to hope that its solution was reserved for me, though I had to try.
(Sidgwick and Sidgwick, 1906, p. 467)
The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription (1870).
The Methods of Ethics (1874; 7th edn, 1907).
The Principles of Political Economy (1883; 3rd edn, 1901).
Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886; 6th enl. edn, 1931).
The Elements of Politics (1891; 4th edn, 1919).
Practical Ethics: A Collection of Essays and Addresses (1898; 2nd edn, 1909; reissued, ed. Sissela Bok, 1998).
Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer and J. Martineau, ed. E.E. Constance Jones (1902).
Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, ed. James Ward (1902).
The Development of the European Polity, ed. Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick (1903).
Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses, ed. Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick and Arthur Sidgwick (1904).
Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays, ed. James Ward (1905).
Henry Sidgwick: Collected Essays and Reviews, Vols. I & II, ed. John Slater (Bristol, 1998).
Essays on Ethics and Method, ed. Marcus Singer (Oxford, 2001).
Other Relevant Works
Brink, David, ‘Common Sense and First Principles in Sidgwick’s Methods’, Social Philosophy and Policy, vol. 11 (1994), pp. 179–201.
Frankena, William, ‘Sidgwick and the Dualism of Practical Reason’, Monist, vol. 58 (1974), pp. 449–67.
Harrison, Ross (ed.) Henry Sidgwick (Oxford, 2001).
Schneewind, J.B., Sidgwick Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977).
Schultz, Bart (ed.), Essays on Henry Sidgwick (Cambridge, 1992).
Shaver, Robert, Rational Egoism: A Selective and Critical History (Cambridge, 1999).
Sidgwick, Eleanor Mildred and Arthur Sidgwick (eds.) Henry Sidgwick; A Memoir (1906).
Singer, Peter, ‘Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium’, Monist, vol. 58 (1974), pp. 490–517.
Sverdlik, Steven, ‘Sidgwick’s Methodology’, Journal of the History of Philosophy vol. 23 (1985), pp. 537–53.