Henry Sidgwick

The English philosopher and moralist Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was the author of The Methods of Ethics, which has been described as the "best treatise on moral theory that has ever been written."

Henry Sidgwick was born in Yorkshire and attended Rugby before entering Trinity College, Cambridge. After a distinguished undergraduate career, he was elected a fellow in 1859. Because he could not in conscience subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles as a condition for holding a fellowship, Sidgwick resigned but remained at Cambridge as a lecturer. He became Knightbridge professor of moral thought in 1883. Together with his wife, Eleanor, a sister of Arthur Balfour, the British prime minister, he helped to establish Newnham, the Cambridge University college for women. Sidgwick was also one of the founders and the first president of the influential Society for Psychical Research. In addition to the classic The Methods of Ethics (1874), Sidgwick's writings include Principles of Political Economy (1883), Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886), The Elements of Politics (1891), Practical Ethics (1898), Philosophy: Its Scope and Relations (1902), and Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and Other Philosophical Lectures and Essays (1905). During his long association with Cambridge, Sidgwick taught and influenced several important future thinkers, including John McTaggart, G. E. Moore, and Bertrand Russell.

Ethical methodology concerns the ways in which men make decisions about how they should act. Sidgwick, as an ethical historian, saw that ethical decisions resulted from a particular conception of the end or purpose of life. Philosophers have been divided into two groups on this subject: those who think that happiness is the chief purpose of existence, and a minority group that acknowledges that there are ends other than happiness, such as self-realization or perfection, that are also intrinsically desirable.

The methods of non-Eudamonistic ethics rest on some type of intuition into the nature of moral principles that extend beyond happiness. The philosophic difficulty of intuitionalism is its inability to establish the universal validity of such insights as transcendent values. Sidgwick described happiness ethics as utilitarian and distinguished between systems that aim at the happiness of individuals (egoistic hedonism) and those that aim at happiness for all. In these systems, methodology consists of designating actions as right or wrong in terms of the amount of happiness produced for the self or for others. Sidgwick admitted that he distrusted intuitional systems because of their subjectivity, and he considered himself to be a utilitarian until he came to perceive "the profound discrepancy between the natural end of action, private happiness, and the end of duty, general happiness."

Thus the central problem of ethics for Sidgwick was located in the conflict between personal inclination and duty toward others. Eventually Sidgwick admitted that without some sort of religious sanction, the attempt rationally to demonstrate the ethical necessity of extending self-love to love for others was a failure.

Further Reading on Henry Sidgwick

A biography by A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir (1906), contains useful sources and a complete bibliography. The best secondary references are C. D. Broad's Five Types of Ethical Theory (1930) and Ethics and the History of Philosophy (1952).

Additional Biography Sources

Schneewind, J. B. (Jerome B.), Sidgwick's ethics and Victorian moral philosophy, Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press, 1977.