Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-59b7f5684b-fmrbl Total loading time: 0.423 Render date: 2022-09-29T22:20:27.667Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": false, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

A ‘Fundamental Misunderstanding’?

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2007



One of the many illuminating aspects of Bart Schultz's book is the recurrent theme of Sidgwick's Socratic inspiration. Some of Sidgwick's contemporaries at Cambridge were among those who gave new life to the study of Socrates and Plato in England. The Cambridge Apostles were self-consciously devoted both to Socratic ideals of friendship and to the Socratic aim of impartial free inquiry on fundamental questions.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 In this discussion I will not try to engage with the secondary literature. But I have especially benefited from Singer, M. G., ‘The Many Methods of Sidgwick's Ethics’, Monist 58 (1974), 420–48; Skorupski, J. M. A., ‘Three Methods and a Dualism’, Proc. Brit. Acad. 109 (2001), 6181.

2 ‘The present book contains neither the exposition of a system nor a natural or critical history of systems. I have attempted to define and unfold not one Method of Ethics, but several: at the same time these are not here studied historically, as methods that have actually been used or proposed for the regulation of practice; but rather as alternatives between which – so far as they cannot be reconciled – the human mind seems to me necessarily forced to choose, when it attempts to frame a complete synthesis of practical maxims and to act in a perfectly consistent manner’ (12). Parenthetical references without further identification refer to the 7th edn. of 1907 (almost identical to the 6th edn. of 1901). References of the form ‘[1] (etc.)’ refer to the 1st (1874) or later edns.

3 Schneewind, J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977), pp. 194204, discusses Sidgwick on methods sympathetically and carefully, and examines some of the difficulties about intuitionism and perfectionism (see below).

Google Scholar

4 ‘In ethical treatises, however, there has been a continual tendency to ignore and keep out of sight the difficulties of the subject. . .Thus we get on the one hand vague and hazy reconciliation, on the other loose and random exaggeration of discrepancies; and neither process is effective to dispel the original vagueness and ambiguity which lurks in the fundamental notions of our common practical reasonings. To eliminate or reduce this indefiniteness and confusion is the sole immediate end that I have proposed to myself in the present work’ (13).

5 ‘In order better to execute this task, I have refrained from expressly attempting any such complete and final solution of the chief ethical difficulties and controversies as would convert this exposition of various methods into the development of a harmonious system’ (13).

6 ‘In the course of this endeavour I am led to discuss the considerations which should, in my opinion, be decisive in determining the adoption of ethical first principles: but it is not my aim to establish such principles. . .I have. . .never ventured to decide dogmatically any controversial points, except when the controversy seemed to arise from want of precision or clearness in the definition of principles, or want of consistency in reasoning’ (14).

7 ‘I have certainly criticized [the morality of common sense] unsparingly: but I conceive myself to have exposed with equal unreserve the defects and difficulties of the hedonistic method. . .. And as regards the two hedonistic principles, I do not hold the reasonableness of aiming at happiness generally with any stronger conviction than I do that of aiming at one's own’ (x).

8 ‘I am finally led to the conclusion (which at the close of the last chapter seemed to be premature) that the Intuitional method rigorously applied yields as its final result the doctrine of pure Universalistic Hedonism’ (406f.). [1] reaches the same conclusion at 375, and reaffirms it at the end of the chapter: ‘I am forced to leave the ethical method which takes perfection, as distinct from happiness, to be the whole or chief part of ultimate good, in a rudimentary condition. . ..we may perhaps conclude that common sense will admit, as its most certain intuition, most precisely stated, the first principle of utilitarianism’ ([1], 378).

9 [2] adds 456–7 (also in later editions) at the beginning of the chapter.

10 Hayward, F. H., The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick (London, 1901), ch. 1.

Google Scholar

11 ‘These clear, emphatic, and reiterated statements about what is aimed at in the Methods indicate that it is a mistake to view the book as primarily a defence of utilitarianism. It is true, of course, that a way of supporting utilitarianism is worked out in detail in the Methods, and that there are places in it where Sidgwick seems to be saying quite plainly that utilitarianism is the best available ethical theory. . .. Yet it does not follow that the Methods itself should be taken simply as an argument for that position’ (Schneewind, SEVMP 192). Schneewind also remarks, however, that in several places, including III.xiii, IV.ii, and the last chapter, Sidgwick ‘seems to abandon his stance of neutrality and to argue in his own voice for utilitarianism’ (263).

12 ‘Whether he also moves rather too quickly on certain ethical theoretical issues – for example, in reducing the number of methods to three (confusingly linking perfectionism to dogmatic intuitionism) and in collapsing egoism and utilitarianism into variants of hedonism – is a matter that has worried even those sympathetic to his commitment to independent ethical theory (and, of course, Sidgwick himself)’ (156). See also 163–5 on perfectionism and intuitionism.

13 ‘the conception of ethics as essentially an investigation of the ‘Ultimate Good’ of Man and the means of attaining it is not universally applicable, without straining, to the view of Morality which we may conveniently distinguish as the Intuitional view; according to which conduct is held to be right when conformed to certain precepts or principles of Duty intuitively known to be unconditionally binding’ (3).

14 His explanation of his procedure in [1] is this: ‘Again, the method which seeks the individual's perfection as ultimate is closely akin to that which aims at conformity to certain absolute rules; virtue being the most prominent element in our notion of human perfection. It will therefore be convenient to treat these together as two varieties of what we may call Intuitionism’ ([1], 9). In [2] and later editions he has this (or something similar): ‘And since Virtue is commonly conceived as the most valuable element of human Excellence – and an element essentially preferable to any other element that can come into competition with it as an alternative for rational choice – any method which takes Perfection or Excellence of human nature as ultimate End will prima facie coincide to a great extent with that based on what I called the Intuitional view: and I have accordingly decided to treat it as a special form of this latter’ (11).

15 ‘It is true that here we may say with Aristotle that the end is the action itself, or a certain quality of it (conformity to a rule), and not something outside of and consequent on the action: but in common language, when we speak of acting for an end, we mean something different from the action itself, some consequence of it. Again,. . .many of the school called Intuitivist or Intuitional hold that our obligation to obey moral rules is not conditional on our knowledge of the end and of its connexion with the actions prescribed’ ([1], 3). This is abbreviated in [2] and further in later editions. [2] deletes the reference to Aristotle.

16 ‘When I am asked “Do you not consider it ultimately reasonable to seek pleasure and avoid pain for yourself?” “Have you not a moral sense?” “Do you not intuitively pronounce some actions to be right and others wrong?” “Do you not acknowledge the general happiness to be a paramount end?” I answer “yes” to all these questions. My difficulty begins when I have to choose between the different principles, or inferences drawn from them’ (14). In [1], 12 the first question is significantly different: ‘When I am asked, “Are you not continually seeking pleasure and avoiding pain?”. . .’ The question is changed in [6]. Perhaps Sidgwick decided that it was misleading to represent the plausibility of the first method through a psychological claim, and so he changed it to a claim about reasonableness.

17 The second mode may also introduce intuitionism; Sidgwick does not suggest that a moral sense introduces its own distinct method; it seems to rely on conscience, as described at 99–101.

18 In [1] this chapter is simply called ‘The methods of ethics’. In [2] and later the title is changed to ‘Ethical principles and methods’.

19 ‘The aim of Ethics is to systematize and free from error the apparent cognitions that most men have of the rightness and reasonableness of conduct, whether the conduct be conceived as right in itself, or as the means to some end commonly conceived as ultimately reasonable’ (77).

20 ‘What then do we commonly regard as valid ultimate reasons for acting or abstaining? This, as was said, is the starting-point for the discussions of the present treatise: which is not primarily concerned with proving or disproving the validity of any such reasons, but rather with the critical exposition of the different “methods” – or rational procedures for determining right conduct in any particular case – which are logically connected with the different ultimate reasons widely accepted. In the first chapter we found that such reasons were supplied by the notions of Happiness and Excellence or Perfection (including Virtue or Moral Perfection as a prominent element), regarded as ultimate ends, and Duty as prescribed by unconditional rules’ (78). At [1], 59, Sidgwick gives a longer summary of the three methods. He speaks of ‘ultimate ends’ (59) and ‘ultimate grounds’ (60), but not of what is ‘ultimately reasonable’.

21 ‘Hence arises difficulty in the classification and comparison of ethical systems; since they often appear to have different affinities according as we consider Method or Ultimate Reason. In my treatment of the subject, difference of Method is taken as the paramount consideration; and it is on this account that I have treated the view in which Perfection is taken to be the Ultimate End as a variety of the Intuitionism which determines right conduct by reference to axioms of duty intuitively known; while I have made as marked a separation as possible between Epicureanism or Egoistic Hedonism, and the Universalistic or Benthamite Hedonism to which I propose to restrict the term Utilitarianism’ (83f.). In [1], 64 Sidgwick does not announce a preference for classification by methods. He makes the change in [4].

22 ‘On this view [sc. indirect utilitarianism], the method of Utilitarianism is certainly rejected: the connexion between right action and happiness is not ascertained by a process of reasoning. But we can hardly say that the Utilitarian principle is altogether rejected: rather the limitations of the human reason are supposed to prevent it from apprehending adequately the real connexion between the true principle and the right rules of conduct’ (85).

23 He also implies that the utilitarian method is similar to the egoistic method on the relevant point (see ‘the connexion between. . .reasoning’ in the quotation from 85 in the previous note).

24 In [1] the last chapter is called ‘The sanctions of utilitarianism’. In later editions it is called ‘Concluding Chapter: the mutual relations of the three methods’. [1] omits the long first paragraph on intuitionism and utilitarianism at [7], 496f.

25 ‘I am finally led to the conclusion. . .that the Intuitional method rigorously applied yields as its final result the doctrine of pure Universalistic Hedonism’ (406f.). [1] reaches the same conclusion at 375, and reaffirms it at the end of the chapter: ‘I am forced to leave the ethical method which takes perfection, as distinct from happiness, to be the whole or chief part of ultimate good, in a rudimentary condition. . ..we may perhaps conclude that common sense will admit, as its most certain intuition, most precisely stated, the first principle of utilitarianism’ ([1], 378).

26 ‘We have found that the original antithesis between intuitionism and utilitarianism must be entirely discarded: since the first principle of utilitarianism has appeared as the most certain and comprehensive of intuitions, and most of the others naturally range themselves in subordination to it, and even seem to be most thoroughly understood when considered as partial applications of it unconsciously and imperfectly made’ ([1] 472). In later editions this comparison of the methods is moved from the end to the beginning of the last chapter, and expanded (496).

27 ‘the opposition between utilitarianism and intuitionism was due to a misunder-standing. . .I could find no real opposition between intuitionism and utilitarianism. The utilitarianism of Mill and Bentham seemed to me to want a basis; that basis could only be supplied by a fundamental intuition; on the other hand the best examination I could make of the morality of common sense showed me no clear and self-evident principles except such as were perfectly consistent with utilitarianism’ (xx–xxi).

28 In the first edition he claims only that utilitarianism and common sense generally coincide. In later editions he goes into more detail (496f.). Some of the same points are more briefly stated at [1], 473, at the end of the last chapter.

29 Issues are further complicated by Sidgwick's division between perceptual, dogmatic, and philosophical intuitionism (I.viii). The form of intuitionism that is reconciled with utilitarianism is the philosophical form. Further questions arise about whether his division is legitimate.

30 This claim about ultimate reasons and ultimate reasonableness is absent from the corresponding places in [1]. Probably Sidgwick adds it to later editions in order to show how the different methods are irreducibly different.

31 This does not appear in [1], 107.

32 Not in [1], 109.

33 I disagree with Sidgwick's claim about Butler because I believe Butler takes conscience to be superior to self-love. Hence I disagree with Frankena's reason for denying that Butler recognizes a dualism (quoted by Schultz, pp. 221f.).

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

A ‘Fundamental Misunderstanding’?
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

A ‘Fundamental Misunderstanding’?
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

A ‘Fundamental Misunderstanding’?
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *