Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)

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Henry Sidgwick, the English philosopher and educator, was born in Yorkshire and attended Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge. After a brilliant undergraduate career, he was appointed a fellow at Trinity in 1859. He had already begun to have religious doubts, and in the years following 1860 he studied Hebrew and Arabic intensively, hoping to resolve these doubts through historical research. At the same time Sidgwick was teaching philosophy, and he had for many years been a leading member of the small group that met for philosophical discussions with John Grote. Gradually he came to think that if answers to his religious questions were to be found at all, they would be found through philosophybut he never fully quieted his doubts. In 1869 he resigned his fellowship because he felt he could no longer honestly subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, as fellows were required to do. His college promptly appointed him to a lectureship, and when religious tests were dropped, he was reappointed fellow. In 1876 he married Eleanor Balfour, sister of Arthur Balfour. He succeeded T. R. Birks as Knightbridge professor of moral philosophy in 1883, and continued actively teaching in the moral sciences course until his death.

Work and Activities

Philosophy was only one of Sidgwick's many interestshe also wrote on education, literature, political theory, and history of political institutions. He was active in the cause of women's education at Cambridge and had a large part in the founding of Newnham College for women, to which he devoted considerable time and money. Another main interest was psychical researchhe performed some experiments with F. W. H. Myers as early as 1873, and in 1882 he helped found the Society for Psychical Research. He served twice as the society's president, and investigated and reported on many alleged psychical phenomena, very few of which, however, he believed to be both genuine and significant.

Sidgwick's most important work is The Methods of Ethics (1874). His other philosophical writings, although interesting for the light they throw on his moral philosophy, are too slight, too occasional, or too little original to be of independent significance; but the Methods has been held by C. D. Broad and other writers to be the greatest single work on ethics in Englishand possibly in any language. Sidgwick's work in economics and political science is generally thought not to be of comparable importance.

Philosophical Method

The Methods of Ethics exemplifies Sidgwick's views on the nature of philosophy. The philosopher's aim is not to discover new truths; rather, it is to give systematic organization to knowledge that we already possess. Theoretical philosophy attempts to unify the knowledge obtained through the sciences, so that all of it may be seen as a whole and all the methods used in science may be seen as parts of one method. Practical philosophy has a similar task to perform with our common moral knowledge of what ought to be and what ought to be done, and with the methods we use in obtaining this knowledge.

In carrying out the task of practical philosophy, Sidgwick offered a resolution of a perennial controversy that had been particularly sharp in the middle years of the nineteenth centurythat between utilitarians, such as J. S. Mill, and intuitionists, such as William Whewell. However, he found himself unable to reach a solution to another central controversy, that between those who held that morality is independent of religious belief and those who held that without religion no coherent morality is possible.

A brief summary of the course of the argument of The Methods of Ethics will make these points plain. Sidgwick took a method of ethics to be a reasoned procedure for reaching specific decisions about what one ought to do. The methods used by common sense, he argued, may be reduced to three. One method takes excellence or perfection as an ultimate goal, and claims that we have intuitive knowledge of a variety of independently valid moral principles and maxims. We reach specific conclusions by subsuming particular cases under the relevant principles. According to the other two methods, we are to infer the rightness or wrongness of acts from the amount of happiness they would cause. According to one method, we calculate the consequences to the agent alone. According to the other, we consider the consequences for everyone affected by the act. Moral rules and principles, for these two methods, are only useful indications of the effects that certain kinds of actions may generally be expected to have. After discussing some basic ethical concepts, Sidgwick examined each method separately and then considered their mutual relations. He concluded that the first method, intuitionism, and the third, utilitarianism, supplement one another, and that their conclusions form a systematic whole. Thus, it is reasonable to act as those conclusions dictate. The remaining method, egoism, can also be systematically developed, and it is reasonable to act according to its conclusions. Either of the two views thus reached dictates obligations that are binding quite independently of any religious sanctions.

However, empirical evidence alone does not show that the conclusions of the egoistic method will always agree with those of the intuitional-utilitarian method. Using methods that are perfectly reasonable, we are sometimes led to serious contradictions. Unless we can find some evidence for the existence of a moral power that will repay self-sacrifice and punish transgression, we will be unable to bring all our practical beliefs and methods into any coherent system. The mere fact that the existence of a power that rewards and punishes behavior is needed to make our practical beliefs coherent does not justify the assertion that there is such a power. Sidgwick personally held that the theistic view is natural for man, but he despaired of finding any evidence to support it and refused to use it in his philosophy. The consequence of the existence of these practical contradictions is (as Sidgwick put it in the melancholy concluding words of the first edition of the Methods ) that "the prolonged effort of the human intellect to frame a perfect ideal of rational conduct is seen to have been foredoomed to inevitable failure."

Basis of Classification

Sidgwick's classification of the methods implicit in commonsense morality rests on two considerations. First, the methods reflect two sides of human nature. Those taking happiness as the final end reflect the sentient side of man, the capacity for enjoying and suffering, while the method taking excellence as the final end reflects the fact that man is also an active being, with a need to do as well as a need to feel. Second, the classification indicates an epistemological distinction that Sidgwick constantly took as basic, the distinction between propositions that we are entitled to assert only because we have correctly inferred them from others that we know, and propositions that we are entitled to assert because we know them without any inference, directly or "intuitively." The intuitional method claims that we have noninferential knowledge of moral principles, while the other methods emphasize the ways in which moral rules and maxims are arrived at by inference.

Noninferential Truth

If there is inferential knowledge, Sidgwick believed, there must be noninferential knowledge; and since he also held that there are no infallible sources of noninferential knowledge, the problem arises of how to test claims to possess noninferential truth or claims to have found self-evident propositions. Sidgwick proposed four tests that apparently self-evident propositions must pass before we can be justified in accepting them: (1) the terms in which they are stated must be clear and precise; (2) their self-evidence must be very carefully ascertained; (3) they must be mutually consistent; and (4) there must be general agreement of experts on their truth. Sidgwick argued at great length that commonsense moral principles, which according to traditional intuitionism are self-evident, fail to pass these tests. Hence, if they are true principles, as we all take them to be, they must be inferential and dependent, not self-evident and independent.

Self-Evident Moral Principles

What do commonsense moral principles depend on? There are four principles that do pass Sidgwick's tests and that he accepted as self-evident. (1) Whatever action anyone judges right for himself, he implicitly judges to be right for anyone else in similar circumstances. (2) One ought to have as much regard for future good or evil as for present, allowing for differences in certainty. (3) The good enjoyed by any individual is as important as the good enjoyed by any other. (4) A rational being is bound to aim generally at good.

Principle of Benevolence

From the principles that the good of each person is equally important and that a rational being must aim generally at good, Sidgwick deduced an abstract principle of benevolence. Commonsense morality, he argued, appeals to this principle to settle cases in which its usual rules give no answers, and allows its rules to be overridden by the principle if they conflict with it. These facts indicate that common sense considers its rules to depend for their validity on this principle. However, the abstract principle of benevolence is also at the center of utilitarianism, and commonsense moralitythe stronghold of traditional intuitionistsis thus seen to be fundamentally utilitarian. The utilitarian, in turn, can have no objection to any of the self-evident principles, and the two methods can thus be completely synthesized. Even the egoist can accept three of the self-evident truths; his rejection of the fourth is an indication of the basic contradiction in the realm of practical reason.

Criticisms of Utilitarianism

Sidgwick is usually considered a utilitarian, and he frequently referred to himself as one. However, his views differ considerably from those of the earlier utilitarians.


Sidgwick rejected the empiricist epistemology that J. S. Mill developed and that seemed to underlie Jeremy Bentham's thought. Empiricism, as Sidgwick understood it, holds that the basic premises from which all knowledge is built are cognitions of particular facts and that these cognitions alone are infallible. Sidgwick argued that these cognitions are not infallible and that empiricism cannot give a satisfactory account of the principles of inference that guide the construction of knowledge from the basic data. Metaphysically, he rejected not only materialism but also the reductive sensationalism to which he believed the empiricist epistemology led. Following Thomas Reid, he held to what he called a commonsense dualism of mind and matter, although he found the connections between the two most obscure.

definition of ethical terms

Sidgwick also rejected what he took to be the traditional utilitarian attempt to define ethical concepts such as "good" and "ought" in terms of nonethical concepts such as "pleasant" or "conducive to most pleasure" and in this way to justify the construction of a purely factual, scientific morality. No reduction of "ought" to "is," of ideal to actual, had yet been successful, he held, although he hesitated to say that no reduction could possibly succeed. However, he did affirm that it is impossible to make an ethical first principle true by definition. To define "good" as "pleasure" is self-defeating if you wish to hold, as a first principle that the good is pleasure, since what you hold as a principle would then be a tautology, and a tautology cannot be an ethical first principle. Recognition of these points, Sidgwick believed, would force the utilitarian to admit the need of a basic intuition in his philosophy.


Sidgwick rejected the motivational theories of Bentham and the Mills. He did not think that we always necessarily act to obtain what we take to be our own pleasure or our own good.

the relevance of psychology

Sidgwick strongly objected to the tendency, which he attributed to Mill, to substitute psychological (or perhaps, with Auguste Comte, sociological) investigation into the origins of ideas and beliefs for properly philosophical investigation of their applicability or truth. Quite aside from his doubts as to the adequacy of the associationist psychology that the earlier utilitarians accepted, Sidgwick held that psychological discoveries about the antecedents and concomitants of ideas and beliefs are, in general, irrelevant to questions of their truth and validityand psychology can tell us only about antecedents and concomitants. It cannot supersede the deliverances of direct introspective awareness on the question of what our ideas now are.


Sidgwick agreed with the earlier utilitarians that there seems to be overwhelming evidence in support of a deterministic view of human action. However, he held that this evidence must be balanced against the fact that in the moment of choosing between alternative actions we inevitably think ourselves free to choose either alternative. He argued that the issue is, therefore, not yet settled, but he held that it is not important for ethical theory that it should be.

independence of politics

Sidgwick held that utilitarianism does not necessarily lead to reforming radicalism in politics. He pointed out the strong utilitarian element to such conservative thinkers as David Hume and Edmund Burke, and he argued at great length that a utilitarian would be extremely cautious in recommending important changes.

Agreements with Utilitarianism

Sidgwick's position was, of course, utilitarian in its major ethical aspects. He held that the only ultimate or intrinsic good is desirable or pleasant states of consciousness; that acts are objectively right only if they produce more good than any other alternative open to the agent; and that moral rules, such as those of truth-telling or promise-keeping, are subordinate to the principle of utility and are dependent on it for whatever validity they possess. He also held that the value of character and motive is derived from, and to be judged in terms of, the consequences of the actions to which they tend to lead. Sidgwick's disagreements with the traditional forms of utilitarianism are part of his attempt to show that the utilitarian view of morality is independent of metaphysical doctrines, psychological theories, and political platforms and therefore is capable of being what he argued it isthe position toward which commonsense morality in every age and in every society has tended.

See also Balfour, Arthur James; Bentham, Jeremy; Broad, Charlie Dunbar; Burke, Edmund; Common Sense; Consequentialism; Egoism and Altruism; Empiricism; Ethics, History of; Grote, John; Hume, David; Mill, James; Mill, John Stuart; Moral Principles: Their Justification; Pleasure; Reid, Thomas; Utilitarianism; Whewell, William.


works by sidgwick

The Methods of Ethics. London, 1874. Extensively revised for the editions of 1877, 1884, and 1890. The sixth edition (1901) was the last revised by Sidgwick; it contains an autobiographical sketch of great interest.

Principles of Political Economy. London: Macmillan, 1883, 1887, 1901.

Outlines of the History of Ethics. London, 1886. Many subsequent editions.

Elements of Politics. London: Macmillan, 1891 and 1897.

Practical Ethics. London: S. Sonnenschein, 1898.

Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations. London: Macmillan, 1902.

Lectures on the Ethics of Green, Spencer, and Martineau. London, 1902.

Development of European Polity. London, 1903.

Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses. London and New York: Macmillan, 1904.

Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant, edited by James Ward. London: Macmillan, 1905.

works on sidgwick

Bradley, F. H. "Mr. Sidgwick's Hedonism." In his Collected Essays. Oxford, 1935. Vol. I. Polemic against Sidgwick.

Broad, C. D. Ethics and the History of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1952. This and the two following works are useful and lengthy discussions of Sidgwick.

Broad, C. D. Five Types of Ethical Theory. London: Kegan Paul, 1930.

Broad, C. D. Religion, Philosophy, and Psychical Research. London: Routledge, 1953.

Havard, W. C. Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1959.

Hayward, F. H. The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick. London, 1901. Not very useful.

Sidgwick, A., and E. M. Sidgwick. Henry Sidgwick; A Memoir. London, 1906. The standard biography, written by his brother and his widow. It contains letters, unpublished papers, and a complete bibliography of his writings.

J. B. Schneewind (1967)