Henry Sidgwickís The Methods of Ethics

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) was an English philosopher who taught at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1859-1900. His writings included The Methods of Ethics (1874) and Principles of Political Economy (1883).

The Methods of Ethics defines three basic methods of ethics: (1) egoistic hedonism, (2) intuitionism, and (3) universalistic hedonism. The analysis of these methods attempts to determine the extent to which they are compatible or incompatible. Sidgwick describes how each method may provide its own definition of the ultimate goal of ethical conduct. Thus, for egoistic hedonism, the private happiness of each individual is the ultimate good. For intuitionism, moral virtue or perfection is the ultimate good. For universalistic hedonism, the general happiness of all individuals is the ultimate good. Sidgwick describes how each of these methods defines rational principles of conduct, and how they each interpret moral duty differently.

Methods of ethics are rational procedures that enable us to determine what we should voluntarily do (or what it is right for us to do) in a particular situation. Ethics is a study of the principles that govern right action or conduct. It is different from politics, because it is concerned with what is right for each individual, while politics is concerned with what is right for society. It is also a philosophical rather than a scientific inquiry, because it is mainly concerned with what ought to be, rather than with what is. However, judgments about what ought to happen in a particular situation often depend upon judgments about what actually is happening in that situation, and thus ethical judgments often depend upon scientific judgments.

Psychological hedonism should be distinguished from ethical hedonism, says Sidgwick. Psychological hedonism affirms that the motives of human action are to be found in the pursuit of pleasure or in the avoidance of pain. Ethical hedonism, on the other hand, asserts that actions are good insofar as they produce pleasure or prevent pain. Psychological hedonism is a theory of psychological motivation, while ethical hedonism is a theory of ethical conduct. Psychological hedonism and ethical hedonism may be combined or separated as methods of defining the ultimate goal of moral conduct.

Ethical hedonism may be divided into egoistic hedonism (including Epicureanism) and universalistic hedonism (including utilitarianism). While egoistic hedonism affirms that each individual should aim to promote his/her own private happiness, universalistic hedonism affirms that each individual should aim to promote the happiness of all individuals.

Egoistic and universalistic principles may be combined in ethical hedonism, because individuals may rightly or wrongly believe that promoting their own private happiness will promote the general happiness of all individuals. However, the egoistic principle that the private happiness of each individual is more important than the general happiness of all individuals may conflict with the universalistic principle that an individual should sacrifice some of his/her own happiness for the sake of the happiness of other individuals. The egoist may consider his own private happiness to be the ultimate good, but the universalist (or utilitarian) may consider the general happiness of all individuals to be the ultimate good.

Ethical intuitionism affirms that proper conduct is defined by rules or principles that may be known intuitively. It affirms that the rightness or wrongness of actions may be known intuitively, even if the consequences of those actions have not been determined.

Ethical intuitionism, according to Sidgwick, may be divided into three phases: (1) perceptional, (2) dogmatic, and (3) philosophical. Perceptional intuitionism affirms that some ethical truths may be intuitively apprehended. Dogmatic intuitionism affirms that some ethical truths may be accepted without being intuitively apprehended. Philosophical intuitionism affirms that some ethical truths may be intuitively apprehended without being undeniably or absolutely self-evident.

Insofar as some actions may be judged intuitively to be right or wrong, those actions may be judged as right or wrong on the basis of their motives or other intrinsic qualities. Intuitionism affirms that some actions may be intrinscially right or wrong, regardless of their consequences. It also affirms that some actions may be judged as right or wrong, regardless of how those actions compare with actions required by moral duty.

Sidgwick defines a moral duty as a right action for which a moral motive is at least occasionally necessary.1 A duty is an action that is obligatory and that is owed to someone or something. Types of moral duty include duty to one's family, duty to one's friends, duty to one's community, duty to one's country, duty to those from whom one has received help, duty to those who are in need, and duty to those who are suffering.

Sidgwick defines virtue as a praiseworthy quality that is exhibited in right conduct and that extends beyond the limits of moral duty. Practical wisdom and rational self-control are intellectual virtues, while benevolence and common humanity are moral virtues. Justice, good faith, veracity, gratitude, generosity, courage, and humility are other moral virtues.

An important question to be considered by any method of ethics is whether some actions are intrinsically good or whether they are merely good as a means to attain an ultimate good. Another important question is whether there is a reliable way of deciding what action should be performed in a particular situation in order to achieve the ultimate goal of moral conduct. Another important question to be considered is how to determine the ultimate goal of moral conduct. Ethical hedonism defines the highest good as the greatest amount of happiness that is attainable by an individual or society. It affirms that the greatest amount of happiness that is attainable by an individual or society is equal to the sum of the greatest amount of pleasure or pain that may be produced by the actions of that individual or society. However, the quantitative method of empirical hedonism may not always be reliable in determining what action is the best means to attain an ultimate good.

Egoistic hedonism and universalistic hedonism may be described as intuitive methods of ethics if they intuitively accept the principle that the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the only rational aims of human action. They may intuitively rely on psychological hedonism as a theory of motivation, but they do not necessarily have to rely on it, and they may also disagree with the intuitionist principle that the rightness or wrongness of some actions does not depend on the consequences of those actions.

Sidgwick explains that universalistic hedonism should be clearly distinguished from egoistic hedonism. Universalistic hedonism affirms that all individuals have an equal right to be happy and that there is no individual whose happiness is more important than that of any other individual. It also affirms that the rightness or wrongness of actions depends on whether they promote universal happiness. Moral virtues such as benevolence, generosity, and good citizenship may be better promoted by universalistic hedonism than by egoistic hedonism, says Sidgwick.

However, Sidgwick admits that a problem with universalistic hedonism is that an individual may have to decide whether an action is right or wrong by estimating not only how much personal happiness will be produced by that action but also how much general happiness will be produced by that action. An individual may have to be able to compare the pleasures or pains of other individuals with his/her own pleasures or pains. Thus, an individual may have to be able to estimate the total amount of his/her own pleasure or pain, and may have to be able to estimate the total amount of the pleasure or pain that may be experienced by other individuals.

Another problem with utilitarianism is that there may be many ways of determining how the greatest possible amount of happiness should be distributed among the greatest number of individuals. There may be many ways of distributing happiness among all the individuals who are to benefit from a given action.

Sidgwick criticizes Kantís concept of a "categorical imperative" for being ambiguous and misleading. The categorical imperative is to "act only in such a way that you can will that the maxim of your action should become a universal law."2 Sidgwick argues that the categorical imperative fails to distinguish between subjective and objective moral duty. An individual may subjectively feel that he/she is acting rightly by complying with the categorical imperative, but may objectively be wrong.

Sidgwick also criticizes Kantís concept of free will for failing to distinguish between freedom and rationality. For Kant, the moral freedom of an individual depends on the degree to which the individual is able to act rationally. If an individual is acting rationally, then he/she will act according to the categorical imperative, and the maxim of each of his/her actions will be capable of becoming a universal law of morality. However, Sidgwick argues that moral freedom is the freedom to choose between right and wrong, and that it may be the freedom to act rationally or irrationally. Thus, there may be confusion as to what constitutes "true" freedom. According to Sidgwick, Kantís interpretation of free will is ambiguous in its conclusions as to whether "rational" freedom is the same as, or different from, "moral" freedom, and this ambiguity is also present in Kant's concept of the autonomy and heteronomy of the will.


FOOTNOTES

1Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), p. 217.
2Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, translated by H.J. Paton (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 70.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals. Translated by H.J. Paton. New York: Harper & Row, 1964.

Sidgwick, Henry. The Methods of Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981.

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