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Schultz's Sidgwick

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 March 2007

The University of Western


Bart Schultz's Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Sidgwick. In this article, I direct my attention for the most part to one aspect of what Schultz says about Sidgwick's masterpiece, The Methods of Ethics, as well as to what he does not say about Sidgwick's illuminating but neglected work Practical Ethics. This article is divided into three sections. In the first, I argue that there is a problem with Schultz's endorsement of the view that Sidgwick's moral epistemology combines elements of both coherentism and foundationalism. In the second, I argue that Schultz has failed to do justice to Sidgwick's mature views in Practical Ethics. In the final section, I briefly say something about Schultz's suggestion that Sidgwick succumbed to both racism and dishonesty.

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Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2007

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1 Schultz, Bart, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe. An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge, 2004). All bare parenthetical numbers in the text refer to this work.

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2 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907) and Sidgwick, Henry, Practical Ethics: A Collection of Addresses and Essays, ed. Bok, Sissela (Oxford, 1998). These works are hereinafter cited as ME and PE respectively. References to the first edition of ME take the form ME1. Abbreviations for other works are as follows: EP = ‘The Establishment of Ethical First Principles’, Mind 4 (1879); FC = ‘Some Fundamental Ethical Controversies’, Mind 14 (1889); PC = ‘Professor Calderwood on Intuitionism in Morals’, Mind 1 (1876).

3 Sidgwick, Eleanor and Sidgwick, Arthur (eds.) Henry Sidgwick, A Memoir (London, 1906), p. 38.

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4 Shaver, Robert, Rational Egoism: An Interpretive and Critical History (Cambridge, 1999), ch. 3.

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5 Shaver, Rational, pp. 62–74. A similar view is defended in Crisp, Roger, ‘Sidgwick and the Boundaries of Intuitionism’, Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations, ed. Stratton-Lake, Philip (Oxford, 2002).

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6 See also Shaver, Rational, pp. 64 and 66.

7 It is important to be clear here. Sidgwick describes himself as using these tests to determine the self-evidence of certain propositions. However, this is misleading. His real concern is with using the tests to ascertain the truth of the propositions he examines. This is clear from the way in which he uses the tests.

8 See Shaver, Rational, pp. 65–6 for a different understanding of this test. For an objection to Shaver, see my ‘Reasoning towards Utilitarianism: Learning from Sidgwick’ (PhD Diss.: University of Toronto, 2005).

9 See also Shaver, Rational, p. 70 and Crisp, ‘Boundaries’, p. 68.

10 JMill, ohn Stuart, Utilitarianism, ed. Crisp, Roger (Oxford, 1998), ch. 2, para. 24.

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11 Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 2, para. 24.

12 The passages from FC 474 and ME 373 that seem to support this view require reinterpretation if what I go on to say is correct. I attempt this reinterpretation in Reasoning towards Utilitarianism.

13 In the same place where Sidgwick makes this statement he remarks that philosophical intuitionism accepts ‘the morality of common sense as in the main sound. . .[while still attempting] to find for it a philosophic basis which it does not itself offer’ (ME 102; italics added). Isn't this clearly a case in which Sidgwick grants common-sense morality probative status? Not necessarily, for he might be here equating being sound with being useful as a practical guide. He seems to do just this at various places. See ME xx–xi and 361.

14 For this point, see Schneewind, J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977), pp. 350–1.

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15 But see below for more about this statement.

16 Pace Shaver, Rational, p. 73.

17 Crisp, ‘Boundaries’, p. 69.

18 Skorupski, John, ‘Three Methods and a Dualism’, Henry Sidgwick, ed. Harrison, Ross (Oxford, 2001), p. 64.

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19 For a discussion of this claim see Gibbard, Allan, ‘Inchoately Utilitarian Common Sense: The Bearing of a Thesis of Sidgwick's on Moral Theory’, The Limits of Utilitarianism, ed. Miller, H. B. and Williams, William H. (Minneapolis, 1982).

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20 In Rational, Shaver contends that Sidgwick has an ‘evolutionary argument for the approximate reliability of common-sense morality’ (p. 70). Sidgwick says that ‘so far as any moral habit or sentiment was unfavorable to the preservation of the social organism, it would be a disadvantage in the struggle for existence, and would therefore tend to perish with the community that adhered to it’ (ME 465). But it is unclear whether Sidgwick's point is here only that this fact is a sign of the approximate reliability of common sense as a means to general happiness rather than a sign that common sense is epistemically reliable. (He seems to mean the former; see ME xxi.) After all, he does raise this issue in the context of a discussion of what decision procedure utilitarianism should rely on. He goes on to suggest, in addition, that utilitarians should (if they were not held up by certain paradoxes) ‘make a thorough revision of these rules’ (ME 467). His acceptance of common sense seems to be based on practical rather than epistemic reasons (ME 467–74, xxi).

21 Skorupski put this objection to me when I delivered an earlier version of this argument at the International Society of Utilitarian Studies at Lisbon on 12 April 2003. See also Skorupski, ‘Dualism’, pp. 64–5 and ME 259–60.

22 Sidgwick, Henry, The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription (London, 1870).

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23 The first four essays of PE are especially relevant.

24 Sidgwick is not it seems advocating that we abandon moral theories or fundamentals altogether. He seems to advocate that we refrain from appealing only to the elements upon which people do not converge. So, for example, if appeal to utilitarian considerations is agreed upon then the appeal is uncontroversial.

25 See also ME 496–509.

26 The remarks in this paragraph are drawn from the essay ‘The Morality of Strife’. Although Sidgwick's main concern in the essay is to deal with the issue of war, he says that the principles for dealing with war are applicable to ‘milder conflicts’ (PE 49). My suggestion is that included among these milder conflicts are disagreements about which practical policies to adopt.

27 For a sharply critical reaction to Sidgwick's practical ethics see Bok, Sissela, ‘Henry Sidgwick's Practical Ethics’, Utilitas 12 (2000). For a response to Bok, see my ‘Henry Sidgwick's Practical Ethics: A Defense’, Utilitas 18 (2006).

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28 Thanks to John Slater for reminding me of the importance of judging people by the standards of their time.

29 I am grateful to Wayne Sumner and Tom Hurka for providing me with helpful comments on earlier versions of the argument presented in the first section of this article, to Stephen Darwall, John Slater, Roger Crisp and Anne Skelton for providing me with helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article, and to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for funding me while I worked on the article.

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