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...
(The entire section is 510 words.)