Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DC073-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 19, 2024, from

2. Ethics and utilitarianism

In composing The Methods, Sidgwick thought of himself as emulating Aristotle, whose Ethics had ‘reduced to consistency by careful comparison’ the common-sense morality of Greece, treated not from the outside but as what he and others thought upon reflection. He wants to ‘do the same for our morality here and now, in the same manner of impartial reflection on current opinion’. His aim is less practice than knowledge, merely ‘to expound as clearly and as fully as my limits will allow the different methods of Ethics that I find implicit 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’.

Sidgwick’s reflections often clash with earlier traditions, including utilitarianism, the empiricism, psychological egoism and reductionism of which he rejected. He maintains that the basic concept of morality – ‘ought’ or ‘right’ – is unique and irreducible, sui generis. Also, moral approbation is ‘inseparably bound up with the conviction, implicit or explicit, that the conduct approved is “really” right – that is, that it cannot, without error, be disapproved by any other mind’. He describes these ‘dictates’ or ‘imperatives’ in a largely internalist fashion as ‘accompanied by a certain impulse to do the acts recognized as right’, though other impulses are likely to conflict. Despite such debts to Butler, Clarke and Kant, Sidgwick saw the issue of free will v. determinism (and other metaphysical issues) as largely irrelevant to ethics, since it is usually impossible, in deliberation, to regard the mere absence of adequate motive as ‘a reason for not doing what I otherwise judge to be reasonable’ (see Moral motivation §1; Praise and blame).

Judgments of ultimate good, rather than right, do not involve definite precepts to act or the assumption that we are capable of doing so, and leave it open ‘whether this particular kind of good is the greatest good that we can under the circumstances obtain’. ‘Ultimate good on the whole,’ Sidgwick suggests, if ‘unqualified by reference to a particular subject, must be taken to mean what as a rational being I should desire and seek to realize, assuming myself to have an equal concern for all existence’ – in contrast to taking my own existence alone to be considered, as in ‘ultimate good on the whole for me’. With greater Benthamite consistency than Mill, he argues that happiness (whether for the egoist or the utilitarian) should be interpreted hedonistically in terms of pleasure or desirable consciousness, and that this yields the best account of ultimate good (see Good, theories of the; Happiness; Hedonism).

Although not preoccupied with the moral faculty as such, Sidgwick is specially concerned with moral reasoning. A ‘method’ of ethics is not simply a principle or theory, but a rational procedure ‘for determining right conduct in any particular case’, for determining the rightness of an individual’s actions by seeing whether the acts in question possess some property, which, on the basis of principle, provides the ultimate reason for the rightness of acts. The plain man, he holds, uses a jumble of different methods, insufficiently reflected upon. Though many think that conscience delivers immediate judgments on the rightness of particular acts (‘perceptional’ or ‘ultra’ intuitionism), Sidgwick has ‘no doubt that reflective persons, in proportion to their reflectiveness, come to rely rather on abstract universal intuitions relating to classes of cases conceived under general notions’. But this ‘dogmatic’ intuitionism, on which ‘the practically ultimate end of moral actions’ is their ‘conformity to certain rules or dictates of Duty unconditionally prescribed’ and discernible with ‘really clear and finally valid intuition’, can also be subjected to further reflection and found wanting. In synthesizing its precepts, and ‘without being disposed to deny that conduct commonly judged to be right is so, we may yet require some deeper explanation why it is so’, yielding a third phase of Intuitionism:

which, while accepting the morality of common sense as in the main sound, still attempts to find for it a philosophic basis which it does not itself offer: to get one or more principles more absolutely and undeniably true and evident, from which the current rules might be deduced, either just as they are commonly received or with slight modifications and rectifications.

(The Methods of Ethics 1907: 102)

Thus Sidgwick famously reconciles intuitional or common-sense morality – the nineteenth-century opponent to utilitarianism – with utilitarian principles. There are self-evident practical principles, but they ‘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’. As reflection is followed out, apprehension changes; the ‘self-evidence’ of particular maxims of duty fades beside that of such abstract principles as ‘what is right for me must be right for all persons in precisely similar circumstances’ and ‘I ought to prefer the greater good of another to my own lesser good’. The dogmatic intuitionist discovers that such rules as veracity, fidelity and justice require both qualification and further systematization by higher principles, which will also resolve the conflicts between and variable formulations of such rules. Utilitarianism can sustain the ‘general validity’ of such rules and correct for ‘the defects which reflection finds in the intuitive recognition of their stringency’; it also ‘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’. If reflection thus reveals utilitarianism as the view to which common morality ‘naturally appeals for that further development of its system which this same reflection shows to be necessary, the proof of Utilitarianism seems as complete as it can be made’ (see Intuitionism in ethics §2; Moral Justification; Utilitarianism).

Sidgwick allows that current morality should not be accepted en bloc as the middle axioms of utilitarianism. But he insists that in both ethics and politics, utopian speculation is an ‘illimitable cloudland’, and we must start

with the existing social order, and the existing morality as a part of that order: and in deciding the question whether any divergence from this code is to be recommended, must consider chiefly the immediate consequences of such divergence, upon a society in which such a code is conceived generally to subsist.

(The Methods of Ethics 1907: 474)

Besides, it is not self-evident that universal benevolence ‘is the right means to the attainment of universal good’, since this end may be ‘self-limiting; may direct its own partial suppression in favour of other impulses’. Indeed, Sidgwick notoriously countenanced the idea of an ‘esoteric morality’, since in less than ideal utilitarian circumstances, a utilitarian could reason that ‘some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands’ – a view that, Sidgwick admitted, is itself perhaps best kept esoteric. Such arguments continue to inspire both utilitarians and their critics, and suggest the difficulties of finding in Sidgwick’s focus on method any great confidence in the normal person’s capacity for moral self-direction. A ‘method’ straddles the distinction between ethical standards and decision-procedures; it admits of indirect (or two-level) utilitarianism, and only in this way addresses act v. rule utilitarianism, motive utilitarianism, and so on (see Consequentialism; Moral expertise).

It is ironic that Sidgwick assimilated both the epistemology and much of the social conservatism for which utilitarians had long castigated such intuitionists as Whewell: ‘Adhere generally, deviate and attempt reform only in exceptional cases in which… the argument against Common Sense is decisive’. As D.G. Ritchie noted,Sidgwick’s ethics and politics were decidedly ‘tame and sleek’ – the ‘method is Bentham’s; but there is none of Bentham’s strong critical antagonism to the institutions of his time’. Sidgwick even downplayed his own critical insights, if they veered too far from common sense. The Methods provides a clear and original defence of classical against average utility calculations in relation to optimal population size and future generations, but The Elements elides the issue in the search for common ground, a manoeuvre also made with respect to women’s equality and the utilitarian critique of nationalism.

Citing this article:
Schultz, Bart. Ethics and utilitarianism. Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DC073-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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