Epistemology of the Closet
The Nation, June 6, 2005
When most people think of Utilitarianism today, they are likely to think of the idea, central to much modern economic thought, that people are by nature maximizers of the satisfaction of their own interests. In its economic form, with the accent on natural selfishness, Utilitarianism looks like a cynical creed that denies the possibility of genuine altruism. If social good for all or most people is to be achieved, it will be because somehow or other the selfish decisions of many people combine to produce it. Such Utilitarian ideas, however, are but an amputated limb of the radical philosophy that once went by that name. For the three great British Utilitarians--Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)--the proper social goal was the greatest happiness of the greatest number, a calculus in which, in Bentham's famous slogan, "Each [is] to count for one, and none for more than one." Far from being a complacent egoistic philosophy, Utilitarianism was radical in both its methods (counting all people equally) and its results, which often urged sweeping change in existing social structures.
Nor were Utilitarians political conservatives, as their modern descendants in economics tend to be. On the contrary, in line with their philosophical convictions, they supported an end to religious establishments, the equality of women, a demanding globalism and, in the case of Mill and Bentham, a dedication to animal rights (since "each" included all sentient beings). Arrested at the age of 18 for distributing contraceptive literature among the poor of London, Mill went on to introduce a motion for women's suffrage as a member of Parliament. Bentham issued the first Western philosophical defense of animal rights since Greco-Roman antiquity, and Mill left much of his estate to the SPCA. Both, as atheists, were unable to hold an academic appointment, which at that time required swearing belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Even more radically, Bentham condemned laws against same-sex relations, commenting, "It is wonderful that nobody has ever yet fancied it to be sinful to scratch where it itches, and that it has never been determined that the only natural way of scratching is with such or such a finger and that it is unnatural to scratch with any other."
Henry Sidgwick is usually regarded as the tame Victorian among these radicals, the person who domesticated Utilitarianism and made it both academically and socially respectable, in the process smoothing its rough edges. This facile story runs up against some inconvenient facts, such as Sidgwick's resignation of his Cambridge fellowship when he decided that he could not support the Thirty-Nine Articles (he resumed it again only when the rules were changed), and his key role, with his wife, Eleanor, in founding Newnham College, the first women's college to be located right in the heart of Cambridge, not (like Girton) at a safe distance from the centers of power. Despite these signs of radical commitment, however, Sidgwick's reputation for tameness has persisted, an impression reinforced by the dry, dense and academic style of his great work, The Methods of Ethics. Both of these factors combine to make Sidgwick of little interest to the general public, at a time when Mill, especially, is enjoying a renewed popularity, helped in no small measure by the eloquence and insight of his famous Autobiography.
Professional philosophers, by contrast, admire Sidgwick, even when they differ sharply with him. Both John Rawls and Bernard Williams, for example, have focused very respectfully on Sidgwick in their critiques of Utilitarian thought, and Rawls praised Sidgwick as one of the most impressive of historical figures for his rigor and complexity. But most philosophers, too, would have thought that Sidgwick, unlike Mill, could not possibly have written anything that showed deep emotion or human insight, much less anything that issued a radical challenge to Victorian sensibilities.
Bart Schultz's mammoth biography shows that we would have been entirely wrong. Schultz, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, argues that Sidgwick was not just a very distinguished academic thinker but also an authentic social radical, if a conflicted one. He tried hard to be a proper Victorian, but he failed in two big ways, losing faith in God and owning up (though not publicly) to forbidden desires for sex with men. The exploration of these themes and related ones (Sidgwick's feminism, his radical views about education and his somewhat more conventional attitudes about race and empire) make this book not only a superb biography but also an invaluable contribution to the history of Victorian England. And because, in addition to these virtues, it is written with a high degree of philosophical understanding and a good deal of sophisticated philosophical discussion, it is the best biography of a philosopher to appear in many years, and perhaps the best ever produced about a British thinker.
Schultz's book is very long, and even longer than it seems, because it is full of lengthy quotations from letters and diaries set in smaller type than the text. But it should not have been shorter, because he has uncovered so much previously unknown source material that is not likely to be assembled again. The reader who doesn't want to read every bit should still be happy it is all there, ready to be mined whenever one wants. And the volume is intelligently arranged. Straight biographical narration occupies its beginning and end, but the middle chapters are thematically organized: one long one on the central philosophical ideas, one on Sidgwick's investigations into the paranormal, one on sexuality and one on race and ethnicity.
Unlike Bentham and Mill, Sidgwick wanted badly to believe in conventional religion, but it took him many years to figure out that he could not do so. Nor did he give up the ghost, so to speak, when he decided that ordinary Anglican piety was not and could not be rationally well grounded. Instead, he tried to prove the existence of a life after death scientifically, co-founding the Society for Psychical Research and devoting a great part of his later life to experiments that tested the claims of mediums, clairvoyants and hypnotists. Bentham and Mill would have mocked these doings because they cared little about heaven in the first place. (Mill once said that our interest in it would be likely to drop away as civilization progressed--although he could not let go of the hope of being reunited with his beloved Harriet.) But the fact that Sidgwick still felt that conventional religious ideas were crucial to solving the conflict between egoism and altruism should not conceal from us, Schultz argues, the highly unconventional means he used to recast them. To the reader who finds all the ghost stuff ridiculous, Schultz points out that at the time many utterly serious people believed it, and that at least some of it (hypnotism) turned out not to be ridiculous. How would we know, without testing? Moreover, Sidgwick's attitude was invariably skeptical and scientific. For that reason he was never satisfied that his hope for communication from beyond the grave had been realized--although some members of the Society firmly believed that he had succeeded in communicating with them after his death.
While Sidgwick was testing the limits of religion, Schultz shows in the most surprising portion of his book, he was also profoundly unconventional in matters of gender and sexuality--much more so indeed than Bentham, a lifelong solitary bachelor, or Mill, whose most scandalous act was to go about with a beloved married woman for many years, probably without sleeping with her, and then to marry her after her husband's death. Sidgwick, by contrast, was not just a feminist, which we knew, but also a lifelong homosexual, which we have never clearly known. Much of the book is devoted to probing Sidgwick's role in a circle of men of homoerotic inclinations, prominently including John Addington Symonds, the independent scholar who (in a monograph titled A Problem in Greek Ethics) did more than anyone prior to Sir Kenneth Dover to put our knowledge of ancient Greek sexual practices on the right track. Although it is unclear whether Sidgwick ever expressed his inclinations in sexual intercourse, and although he did eventually marry the estimable Eleanor Mildred Balfour, whom he met in the Society for Psychical Research, Schultz does establish that he was entirely impotent sexually with women (Symonds and most of the other men in the circle were not, and fathered children), and that he struggled throughout his life with issues of hypocrisy and openness in connection with his own forbidden desires. His fear of scandal kept him from embracing his sexual identity, and he aggressively protected his friends from exposure and disgrace, at one point making Symonds lock up a box of his passionate homoerotic poems and dumping its key, himself, into the river Avon. "I feel often as unrelated and unadapted to my universe as man can feel," Sidgwick summarized himself to a male friend.
Stories like Sidgwick's have been told in histories of Victorian sexuality, but Schultz has mined the intimate correspondence of Symonds and Sidgwick for priceless insights into the way gay men experienced the world in the time of Oscar Wilde. What we see here more clearly than ever before is the cruel deformation of personality wrought by the Victorian closet, with its looming fear of disgrace and imprisonment. Consider the case history of himself contributed by Symonds to Havelock Ellis's Studies in Sexual Inversion:
Not for Sidgwick, however, even this hard-won journey to self-acceptance and spiritual repose. Guilt and fear keep on oscillating unsteadily with the sense that his desires are good and their objects beautiful and lovable. To read the following extract from Sidgwick's private jottings marked "(May 1867 to JAS)" is to take on an utterly new view of the arid academic we thought we knew:
Reading such passionate and slightly mad utterances, we understand that the closet enclosed Sidgwick's poetry as well as his body. And we attach a new sense to his constant insistence that moral judgments are best made from the "point of view of the Universe." For Bernard Williams and other critics, this preference for the detached point of view shows Sidgwick's emotional obtuseness, his inability to see the value of the personal point of view. Schultz shows that things are much more complex: The Universe (unlike "my universe," in the other quotation) is a place beyond Victorian morality, a place that knows the good of love and sees the surpassing beauty of the men who are its objects. Perhaps the saddest aspect of this fantasy is its unmistakably Victorian character. (Sidgwick loved Pre-Raphaelite verse and called Christina Rossetti's "Remember" "perhaps the most perfect thing that any living poet has written.") Whereas Bentham and Mill derived happiness from their outsider status (Mill insisted on being buried in France because he was utterly fed up with England and the English), Sidgwick cannot stop being of his time even in the act of spurning it.
Were Schultz's book only a record of these aspects of Sidgwick's life and conduct, it would already be an estimable volume of history. But of course Sidgwick is worthy of our attention because he is a first-rate philosopher, and much of Schultz's volume is taken up with a close reading of his great book. The Methods of Ethics is an important work in part because of its systematic ambition and rigorous argumentation. Unlike Bentham, who was simply not a very good arguer, and unlike the much greater Mill, whose journalistic style often frustrates the philosophical reader by leaving essential matters to be filled in on one's own, Sidgwick lays out Utilitarianism with great philosophical detail, showing with close argumentation why it seems to be preferable to the two other prominent approaches to ethics in Sidgwick's time, ethical egoism and "intuitionism," the common-sense-based morality made famous by the anti-Utilitarian William Whewell. (The absence of the Kantian alternative is striking; it led Rawls to suggest that his own Kant-inspired political theory might be seen as the next chapter in Sidgwick's opus.) Tracing his method to Aristotle, Sidgwick purports to go through the view of "the many" and "the wise," and to show that Utilitarianism preserves the "appearances" of reputable ethical thought better than its alternatives.
Utilitarianism can be usefully characterized (following an analysis proposed by Bernard Williams and Amartya Sen) as involving three ideas. First, consequentialism: The right choice is the one that produces the best overall consequences. Second, sum-ranking: The way we aggregate the satisfactions of different persons into a social whole is simply by adding them all up (rather than, say, by focusing on getting the worst-off person as high up as possible, or by insisting on some constraints on how unequal people can be allowed to be). Third, some substantive view of what the good for a person is, such as pleasure, or the satisfaction of desire. Sidgwick, like Bentham, opts for pleasure, though he is much more sensitive than Bentham to the difficulties involved in comparing different pleasures of the same person and the even greater difficulty involved in comparing the pleasures of different people.
Utilitarians typically commend the choice of pleasure as the goal by pointing to the alleged ubiquity of the pursuit of pleasure (not the best and surely not the only way to justify a central ethical value, one might have thought). They then encounter a difficulty: If what each person pursues, and should pursue (according to them), is maximal personal pleasure, how are we going to defend the view that the right goal for society is the greatest happiness of the greatest number? And how, having defended the view, are we going to convince people that it is that goal, rather than the egoistic goal, that they should pursue, since for many people pursuing overall happiness will involve personal sacrifice? Mill had a lot of difficulty with the philosophical argument, and he needed ultimately to depart from strict Utilitarianism in order to solve it to the extent that he did; but he was optimistic about the social process, believing that civic education could produce people who really did think of the happiness of others as an integral part of their own happiness. Sidgwick was hung up on this problem all his life; he called it the "dualism of practical reason," and in the end he believed that he had failed to solve it--unless life after death should turn out to produce a coincidence between personal happiness and service to others. But he made much more headway than his predecessors on the philosophical side of the issue, with his probing work on ethical methodology and his defense of a perspective of impartiality ("the point of view of the Universe") as the right place from which to make ethical judgments. (Schultz rightly notes that Sidgwick owes a considerable debt to Kant, although it is scarcely acknowledged, and to the Kantian idea that one must not favor one's own case but rather must test one's own actions by thinking about how they would look as universal features of the world.)
Non-philosophers will want to read this material slowly over time. One part of it they should not miss, however, is Schultz's lucid account of Sidgwick's defense of "indirect Utilitarianism" and of the central role of an elite who will run society for its own overall good. Sidgwick was far less democratic than Mill. He retained from his youthful days in the Apostles (the secret Cambridge intellectual society that gave birth to the Bloomsbury Group, as well as, later, to notorious traitors and spies) a strong elitism about morality, holding that only a select few could be trusted to know the true principles of Utilitarian ethics, and that the rest of the people would be better off believing in ordinary morality, with its notions of virtue and vice. This two-level Utilitarianism has seemed to some to solve some of its thorniest philosophical problems; to others it is an index of its moral bankruptcy. Schultz's rich discussion lets the reader decide.
Sidgwick spent his life on one of philosophy's most difficult problems, which is also one of the most difficult problems of personal and political life: How can we be happy while at the same time pursuing fairness? If he himself did not solve it, he contributed more than all but a few to our understanding of its dimensions and our sense of where to look for its solution. How odd that his widow and friends became so obsessed with his putative communications from beyond the grave, when he had already achieved this far worthier, and genuine, immortality, in a life marked, as we now know, by painful struggle and a strange combination of radical openness and fearful self-concealment.