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Henry Sidgwick held that ethics focuses on the reasons people use in deciding between two courses of action and that the study of ethics is the attempt to bring these reasons together in a coherent system. Modern Western people use three different “methods” of ethics; that is, three different ways...

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Henry Sidgwick held that ethics focuses on the reasons people use in deciding between two courses of action and that the study of ethics is the attempt to bring these reasons together in a coherent system. Modern Western people use three different “methods” of ethics; that is, three different ways of answering the question, “Why should I do such and such?” They may reason with a view to self-interest; they may ask what their duty is; they may try to estimate the effect of the action in question on the general well-being. Sidgwick held that ordinary people do not find it necessary to choose between these methods: On some occasions they use one, and on other occasions another.

Professed moralists, however, have condemned this slackness and have insisted that all ethical reasoning should proceed from one principle and employ one method. Some have maintained that ethics is the reasoned pursuit of happiness, whether one’s own or that of all humankind. Others have denied this and maintained that human reason knows immediately what acts are right and what are wrong. In Sidgwick’s view, neither of these approaches could be carried through consistently without unduly constraining the moral intention of ordinary people. He accepted the ideal of unity and consistency that governs all theoretical inquiry; but he was wary of Procrustean solutions, and thought it better to leave certain questions unresolved than to do violence to important aspects of moral experience. Thus, instead of championing only one method, he sought to find a higher unity in which the distinctive contribution of each of “the methods of ethics” is preserved.

A work with such a thesis might have turned out to be a tiresome piece of eclecticism. Actually, it is a masterpiece in philosophical analysis. The strength of Sidgwick’s work lies in the sympathetic treatment that he accorded each method, the care he expended in defining and testing claims, and the hopeful and tentative manner in which he developed rival positions.

Sidgwick broke with the practice, which had prevailed in English philosophy before his time, of treating moral philosophy as an adjunct of metaphysics, or of divinity, or of psychology. Whether moral law has its foundation in the will of God or in the evolution of society, whether human will is an efficient cause, whether humans are naturally selfish or social are questions that do not enter into ethical inquiry. Ethics is a search for “valid ultimate reasons for acting or abstaining.” Problems concerning God, nature, and self belong not to ethics but to general philosophy. “The introduction of these notions into Ethics is liable to bring with it a fundamental confusion between what is’ and what ought to be,’ destructive of all clearness in ethical reasoning.”

Limiting his field, therefore, to what could be called “the phenomenology of morals,” Sidgwick brought under review three methods of ethical reasoning and their corresponding principles. He called them, for brevity, egoism, intuitionism, and utilitarianism. British ethical opinion, when his book first appeared, could fairly well be summed up in these three positions.

Egotistical Hedonism

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The first method discussed by Sidgwick is egoistical hedonism. Sidgwick aimed to separate ethical questions from psychological ones; however, historically, ethical hedonism has always been closely connected with psychological hedonism and has been thought to draw support from it. For example, Jeremy Bentham maintained that “the constantly proper end of action on the part of any individual” is his own happiness. This is an ethical proposition. However, Bentham also said that “on the occasion of every act he exercises, every human being is inevitably led to pursue that line of conduct which, according to his view of the case, taken by him at the moment, will be in the highest degree contributory to his own greatest happiness.” This is a psychological proposition. Sidgwick said that, if the psychological statement be construed strictly, the ethical statement is meaningless: There is no point in maintaining that one “ought” to pursue the line of conduct that will bring one the greatest happiness if one is incapable of following any other line. However, even if the psychological law is taken in a weak and approximative sense, “there is no necessary connection between the psychological proposition that pleasure or absence of pain to myself is always the actual ultimate end of my action, and the ethical proposition that my own greatest happiness or pleasure is for me the right ultimate end.”

Ethical hedonism does, however, deserve consideration as a method of ethics apart from the alleged psychological law. When people make “cool self-love” the ordering principle of their lives, they are, according to Sidgwick, using one of the “natural methods” by which people judge between right and wrong conduct. The philosophical egoist who defines the good in terms of pleasure is doing no more than stating this view in clear and meaningful terms.

One problem implicit in the popular conception of estimating satisfactions—for example, the relative value of poker and poetry—is to find a common coin by which they can be measured. Pleasure, conceived of as “the kind of feeling that we seek to retain in consciousness,” serves as that coin. To give the theory further applicability, pain may be regarded as commensurable with pleasure, along a scale on either side of a “hedonistic zero.”

Sidgwick submitted these notions to searching criticism, the most damaging of which, in his estimation, was the impracticality of methodical and trustworthy evaluation of the pleasures involved in two different courses of action. He did confess, however, that “in spite of all the difficulties that I have urged, I continue to make comparisons between pleasures and pains with practical reliance on their results.” He concluded that for the systematic direction of conduct, other principles were highly desirable. He thought that this would be recognized by those who are concerned only with their own happiness.


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Common morality, however, although it allows a place for reasonable self-love, does not admit that people have the right to live for themselves alone. This leads to the second “method” of ethics, which Sidgwick called intuitionism. From this point of view, right conduct has very little to do with desires and selfish enjoyment; what matters is duty and virtue.

Sidgwick held that the notions of “right” and “ought,” which are fundamental to the intuitionist point of view are “too elementary to admit of any formal definition.” They cannot be derived from the idea of the good, if this is understood to consist of happiness. If, on the other hand, it is understood to consist of excellence, this is merely another way of referring to what ought to be. The judgment that a certain course of action is right presents itself as a direct cognition. It may be accompanied by feelings, such as sympathy or benevolence, but it is itself a dictate of reason. Unlike egoistic hedonism, which reasons a posteriori in its effort to estimate future good, the ethics of right and duty employs an a priori method, reasoning from self-evident truth. Sidgwick called it, therefore, the method of intuition.

Sidgwick maintained, however, that it is one thing to recognize the prima facie claims of moral insight—that they are simple and categorical—and something else to grant that their claims are veridical. The point he wished to make is that people would not have the notions of morally right and wrong (as distinct from instrumentally right and wrong and logically right and wrong) except for some kind of direct moral insight.

The systematic moralist soon discovers that not all moral intuitions are trustworthy. There are, said Sidgwick, three levels on which the claims of obligation present themselves to the conscience. First, there is the kind of judgment ordinarily referred to as the voice of conscience, which functions after the analogy of sense perception and testifies to the rightness or wrongness of single acts or motives. However, the slightest experience with others is enough to convince people that conscience, in the sense of an intuitive perception, is not infallible. Virtuous people differ in their judgment of a course of action. In their effort to persuade one another, they appeal from the particular instance to general rules that seem to be self-evident. This is the second level of intuitive moral reasoning. It is made up of rules such as these: that we govern our passions, obey laws, honor parents, and keep promises.

To the unreflective mind, these rules seem unexceptionable. Nevertheless, a serious attempt to give them precise meaning and application discloses at once their ambiguity. For example, it is said to be intuitively certain that promisers are bound to perform what both they and the promisees understood to be undertaken. On examination, however, all sorts of qualifications come into view, which are just as obviously reasonable as the original principle. The promisee may cancel the promise; and there are circumstances in which it seems that promises should be annulled if the promisee is dead or otherwise inaccessible. Again, a promise may conflict with another obligation, or a promise may have been made in consequence of fraud or concealment. Sidgwick explored these and other possibilities in detail, and concluded “that a clear consensus can only be claimed for the principle that a promise, express or tacit, is binding, if a number of conditions are fulfilled,” and that “if any of these conditions fails, the consensus seems to become evanescent, and the common moral perceptions of thoughtful persons fall into obscurity and disagreement.”

Recognizing the weakness of common moral axioms, philosophers, ancient and modern, have sought to raise the principle of intuition to the level of an axiomatic science by formulating abstract principles of morality so clearly that they cannot conceivably be doubted or denied. For example, “we ought to give all people their own,” and “it is right that the lower parts of our nature should be governed by the higher.” These alleged axioms are self-evident, but only because they are tautologies. Sidgwick called them “sham axioms.” They are worth even less than popular moral rules.

It might seem, from this analysis, that the entire attempt to base ethical reasoning upon intuition was a mistake and should be abandoned, but this was not Sidgwick’s contention. “It would be disheartening,” he said, “to have to regard as altogether illusory the strong instinct of common sense that points to the existence of such principles, and the deliberate convictions of the long line of moralists who have enunciated them.” If the “variety of human natures and circumstances” is so vast that rules are not helpful in determining particular duties, there are, nevertheless, “certain absolute practical principles, the truth of which, when they are explicitly stated, is manifest.”

The first such principle is that of justice or impartiality. It states that “if a kind of conduct that is right for me is not right for someone else, it must be on the ground of some difference between the two cases other than the fact that I and he are different persons.” Sidgwick saw this as an application of the principle of the similarity of individuals that go to make up a logical whole or genus.

The second principle is that of prudence. It states “that Hereafter as such is to be regarded neither less nor more than Now.” In other words, one ought to have a care for the good of one’s life as a whole and not sacrifice a distant good for a nearer one. Sidgwick said that this was an application of the principle of the similarity of the parts of a mathematical or quantitative whole.

The third principle is that of benevolence, and follows from the other two. If we combine the principle of justice (equal respect for the right of every man) with the principle of the good on the whole, we arrive at “the notion of Universal Good by comparison and integration of the goods of all individual human—or sentient—existences.” “I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view of the universe, than the good of any other. . . . And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally.”

In Sidgwick’s opinion, these formal principles of intuition are an indispensable part of systematic ethics, providing the rational necessity on which the whole structure is based. Egoistic hedonism would have no kind of rational foundation apart from the axiom of prudence here expressed, nor would universal hedonism, or utilitarianism, without the other two axioms, those of justice and benevolence.

The axioms of intuition do not offer practical guidance by themselves. They must be given content and direction in terms of the good—not merely in terms of the formal concept of the good as “excellence” but also in terms of the material concept of the good as “happiness,” that is, “desirable consciousness.” We have seen the validity of this concept in connection with egoism. All that remains is to accept it as the ultimate criterion or standard that ought to govern our actions toward others.


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Sidgwick’s discussion of utilitarianism, the third of his three “methods,” is brief. It need not be extensive because its main principles have already been stated—that the good is pleasure was shown under egoism and that the right action has regard to the happiness of the whole was shown under intuitionism. Sidgwick does not try to base our duty to humankind at large on “feelings of benevolence,” or “natural sympathy.” It rests on a moral cognition. Sidgwick declared that utilitarianism requires people to sacrifice not only their private happiness but also that of persons whose interests natural sympathy makes far dearer to them than their own well-being. Its demands are sterner and more rigid than traditional notions of duty and virtue.

The fact that he found the rationale of utilitarianism implicit in the axioms of intuitionism was, for Sidgwick, a great step toward bringing the diverse methods of ethics into a higher synthesis. That egoism finds its rule of prudence among them was also encouraging. However, one fundamental breach remained to be healed: how to reconcile egoism with utilitarian duty.

Theologians have resolved the problem by the doctrine of immortality and eternal rewards, but Sidgwick refused that solution in the interests of preserving the autonomy of ethics. He did not deny the desirability of such an arrangement, but he saw no rational evidence for it. “It only expresses the vital need that our Practical Reason feels of proving or postulating this connection of virtue and self-interest, if it is to be made consistent with itself. For the negation of this connection must force us to admit an ultimate and fundamental contradiction in our apparent intuitions of what is Reasonable in conduct.”

That would be tantamount to admitting that rational ethics is an illusion. It would not mean abandoning morality, “but it would seem to be necessary to abandon the idea of rationalizing it completely.” This, in turn, would have the practical consequence that in a conflict between duty and self-interest, the conflict would be decided by “the preponderance of one or other of two groups of non-rational impulses.”

Sidgwick’s conclusion has about it the inconclusiveness of many a Socratic dialogue. He suggested that we may be faced with the alternative of accepting moral propositions “on no other grounds than that we have a strong disposition to accept them,” or of “opening the door to universal scepticism.”


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Additional Reading

Blanshard, Brand. Four Reasonable Men. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1984. Blanshard includes Sidgwick in this book, which reveals Blanshard’s admiration for Sidgwick’s thought.

Broad, C. D. Five Types of Ethical Theory. Patterson, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1959. A detailed and thorough critical work on The Methods of Ethics, which is Henry Sidgwick’s most important contribution to moral philosophy.

Copleston, Frederick. A History of Philosophy: Modern Philosophy. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967. In a chapter on “Empiricists, Agnostics, Positivists,” Copleston provided a brief but helpful account of Sidgwick’s contributions to ethical theory.

Havard, William C. Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1959. This historical study defines Sidgwick’s place in the British utilitarian tradition.

James, David Gwilym. Henry Sidgwick: Science and Faith in Victorian England. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970. Situates Sidgwick and his philosophy in the British context of his time.

The Monist. LVIII, no. 3 (July, 1974). This issue of the journal is devoted to Sidgwick’s philosophy. Contains several excellent historical and critical articles.

Schneewind, J. B. Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy. New York: Clarendon Press, 1977. A well-crafted and thoughtful study of Sidgwick’s ethical theory in the context of his historical period.

Schultz, Bart, ed. Essays on Sidgwick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Careful studies by able scholars trace the development, insights, and implications of Sidgwick’s moral philosophy and his interpretations of utilitarianism in particular.

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