Article abstract: A proponent of higher education for women and an advocate of research into paranormal phenomena, Sidgwick attempted in philosophy to reconcile an intuitive approach to morality with that of utilitarianism. His reasoned defense of the resulting ethical method produced one of the most significant works on ethics in English, the capstone of nineteenth century British moral philosophy.
Henry Sidgwick was born on May 31, 1838, the son of William and Mary (Crofts) Sidgwick, both from northern England. His father, an Anglican clergyman and headmaster of the Skipton, Yorkshire, grammar school, died in 1841. Henry’s early life was characterized by frequent moves, which apparently brought on a kind of stammer that never left him. In 1852, Henry was sent to Rugby School, and the rest of the family, his mother and three other surviving children, settled in Rugby the following year.
Sidgwick was strongly influenced in his early life by one of his Rugby masters, Edward White Benson, a cousin nine years older than he. Benson soon joined the Sidgwick household; he would later marry Sidgwick’s sister, Mary, and would be the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1883 until the year of his death. The precocious Henry came to idolize his cousin and followed his advice by enrolling at Trinity College, Cambridge, after his graduation from Rugby in 1855. Cambridge was to be his home for the rest of his life.
Sidgwick’s early university experience brought a host of academic awards, and as an undergraduate he was elected to the Apostles Society. The Apostles were dedicated to the pursuit of truth, wherever it might be found, and Sidgwick found himself taken by the spirit of honest inquiry into religion, society, and philosophy. He would devote his life to the great philosophical questions, seeking always for honesty and truth to triumph over rhetoric. Indeed, Sidgwick’s writing is characterized by a kind of zealous balance, the author being at pains to give each aspect of an argument or counterargument its due.
Some readers of Sidgwick have taken this balancing effort as a fault and have yearned for the simple dogmatic statement which Sidgwick was loath to make. He was not a system builder in philosophy; his was the task of honest elucidation and tentative judgment.
In curious contrast to the stodgy feel of his major works, Sidgwick the man was a witty conversationalist (using his stammer at times as a dramatic device) and a lover of poetry. Small in stature, his large, silken beard flapping in the breeze as he ran along the street of Cambridge to his lectures, he was vigorous, sturdy, and good-humored. The academic life suited him perfectly.
In 1859, Sidgwick’s sister married Edward Benson. That same year, Sidgwick was elected a fellow of Trinity and appointed to an assistant tutorship in classics, thus beginning his career as a teacher and writer. It was a time of ferment in the intellectual world; that same year, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, by Charles Darwin, first saw publication, as did On Liberty, by John Stuart Mill. Mill became a major influence on Sidgwick, though the two often took differing philosophical positions. Through his contact with the Apostles, Sidgwick became convinced that the truth of Christianity was an open question. The influence of Benson’s Anglican orthodoxy had begun to wane.
Sidgwick did not lightly dismiss the Christian story, yet even an intense study of the ancient Semitic texts left him unsatisfied. He realized that he was dealing with philosophical issues: If the miracle stories from the Scriptures were true, then reports of miracles from all ages must be considered, but then the accuracy of science itself (which admits of no supernatural interventions in its descriptions of the regularities of the world) is called into question. It appeared to Sidgwick that the probability of a real miracle was much less than the likelihood that witnesses were erroneous, untruthful, or credulous. “I still hunger and thirst after orthodoxy,” he wrote, “but I am, I trust, firm not to barter my intellectual birthright for a mess of mystical pottage.” Yet Sidgwick, never given to fanaticism, produced no anti-Christian propaganda. He recognized the value of the faith for others, but honesty compelled him to a skeptical view of Christianity. He would wrestle with the idea of theism for the rest of his life.
Sidgwick’s honesty became a cause célèbre in 1869, when he resigned his fellowship at Cambridge rather than continue to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, which was required by law for the post. Though by 1869, affirmation of the Anglican doctrines was an empty formality in academic circles, it is characteristic of Sidgwick that he took the matter seriously. It is further a recognition of his abilities as an instructor that, far from being relieved of his duties, Sidgwick was appointed to a special post at Cambridge that did not require doctrinal subscription and was reappointed as a fellow when such tests were abolished in 1871. In 1872, he was...