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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

I. Philosophers

§ 27. Henry Sidgwick; The Methods of Ethics

These writers had not much in common beyond the two points which have led to their being placed together here. They both saw that evolution was not an “open sesame” to the secrets of philosophy, and neither owed allegiance to the idealist movement which rose to prominence in their time. They were probably the ablest and most influential writers who made independent advances on lines more closely connected with the older English tradition.

Sidgwick taught philosophy for many years at Cambridge, and held the chair of moral philosophy there from 1883 until 1900, the year of his death. His reputation as a philosophical writer was made by his first book, The Methods of Ethics (1874). He afterwards published treatises on a similar scale on political economy and on politics; and, after his death, various occasional articles were issued in collected form, and a considerable series of books was compiled from his manuscripts, dealing with general philosophy, with contemporary ethical systems and with political constitutions. Within certain limits, Sidgwick may be regarded as a follower of John Stuart Mill, at least in ethics, politics and economics. In these subjects he took Mill’s views as the basis of his own criticisms and reflections, and he accepted the utilitarian criterion. At the same time, he gave much more weight than Mill had done to the intellectualist tradition in philosophy. He saw that the empirical philosophy was based on conceptions which it was unable to justify by its customary method of tracing their origin in experience. This did not lead, however, to any agreement with Kant’s analysis of knowledge. He was an adverse and somewhat unsympathetic critic of the Kantian theory. He inclined, rather, to a return to the “natural realism” of Thomas Reid, on the question of the knowledge of external reality; and his ethical doctrine includes a synthesis of the views of Clark and Butler with those of Mill.

His first book remains his most striking contribution to philosophy and the most accurate index of his philosophical attitude. In spite of his utilitarian sympathies, its starting-point and most fundamental ideas show the influence of a different type of thought. He starts with the fundamental notion of “ought” or duty, and argues that enquiries into its origin in our consciousness do not affect its validity. The knowledge that there is something right or rational to be done depends, in the last resort, upon an intuition or immediate view of what is right or reasonable. All the old arguments of the utilitarians are swept away; the analysis of conduct into pursuit of pleasure is shown not only to be itself incorrect, but to be irreconcilable with the acceptance of general happiness as the ethical end. His own utilitarianism is based upon a new synthesis of intuitionism and empiricism. Here enters his central doctrine of the “axioms of the practical reason.” These do not prescribe any concrete end as good—that has to be determined in another way; but they are formal principles eternally valid whatever the nature of goodness may prove to be. To these formal principles are given the names prudence, benevolence and justice; but they include much less than is usually covered by these terms and may, perhaps, be adequately summed up in the statement that neither the time at which, nor the person by whom, a good is enjoyed affects the degree of its goodness. From the distinction and yet equal validity of the axioms of prudence and benevolence, Sidgwick’s ethical theory terminates in a doctrine of “the dualism of the practical reason.” It would appear, however, that this dualism really arises from the ambiguity of the term prudence, which may mean either “regard for one’s own good on the whole” or (what is not the same thing) the principle that “hereafter as such is neither less nor more valuable than now.” Only the latter has a claim to be regarded as an absolute ethical principle; and it is not inconsistent with the axiom of benevolence. The other side of his utilitarianism—the reduction of goodness to terms of pleasure—is carried out by analysing conscious life into its elements and showing that each in its turn (except pleasure), when taken alone, cannot be regarded as ultimate good. This analytic method is characteristic of Sidgwick’s thinking, as it was of that of most of his predecessors—intuitionist as well as empirical. It rests on the assumption that the nature of a thing can be completely ascertained by examination of the separate elements into which it can be distinguished by reflection—an assumption which was definitely discarded by the contemporary school of idealists, and on which the evolutionist writers also do not seem to have relied.

As was natural, therefore, Sidgwick did not produce a system of philosophy. He made many suggestions towards construction, but, in the main, his work was critical. He was severely critical of the attempts at speculative construction made in his day, and he carried on some controversies in which his subtlety and wit had full play: neither Spencer nor Green was his match in dialectics. It was not, however, of systems and theories only that he was a great critic. His powers are seen at their highest when he analysed and described the moral opinions of ordinary men, not as they are reflectively set down in philosophical books, but as they are expressed in life, compact of reason and tradition, fused by emotion and desire. The third book of his Methods of Ethics consists, in large part, of an examination of the morality of commonsense. It is an elucidation and sifting of the ideas under which men act, often without clear consciousness of them; and it shows the sympathetic apprehension of a mind which shares the thoughts it describes and can yet see them in perspective and sum up their significance. Both the excellence of the matter and the distinction of the style should give at least this portion of his work a permanent place in literature.