Review of "The Methods of Ethics"

The Methods of Ethics, by Henry Sidgwick. ISBN 0-915145-28-6.

It's not entirely clear that it's worth writing a review of this book, because most people who'd be interested in it probably know all about it already. It was the first attempt at a comprehensive account of ethical theory from a utilitarian perspective; it's big, detailed, and famous. It

claims to be an examination, at once expository and critical, of the different methods of obtaining reasoned convictions as to what ought to be done which are found -- either explicit or implicit -- in the moral consciousness of mankind generally: and which, from time to time, have been developed, either singly or in combination, by individual thinkers, and worked up into the systems now historical.

That description gives a reasonable idea not only of the content of the work, but also of its style: workmanlike, a little pedantic, erring towards pomposity rather than towards frivolity, systematic and thorough. I liked this, though there are plenty of philosophers whose writing I enjoy more.

Sidgwick argues that only three substantially different "methods of obtaining reasoned convictions as to what ought to be done" need to be considered: egoistic hedonism, universalistic hedonism (that is: utilitarianism), and "intuitionism", by which he means the view

according to which conduct is held to be right when conformed to certain precepts of principles of Duty, intuitively known to be unconditionally binding.

He examines "Intuitionism", frequently paraphrased as "the morality of Common Sense", and finds it wanting on the ground of unclarity: there is no universal agreement about the content of the alleged intuitions by which morality is supposed to be determined, nor about what to do when those intuitions are in conflict. His answer is that one must look to some more general and fundamental principle, and that only the principle of utility will do. In other words, he holds that if you seriously set out to make "intuitionism" clear and rigorous, you'll end up with utilitarianism.

Between utilitarianism and egoistic hedonism, Sidgwick declines to adjudicate. He plainly finds the former preferable, but can't offer any cogent answer to someone who simply doesn't care about any sort of universalized good but seeks his or her own happiness above all. This seems clearly correct; the egoist's position is clear and internally consistent, however disagreeable it may be to others.

I am deeply unconvinced by Sidgwick's argument that "intuitionism" reduces to utilitarianism. He seems much too quick to argue from the absence of universal agreement on the exact scope of a principle, to the claim that the principle isn't fundamental and must be subordinated to some other simpler and clearer one. Some of his arguments that "Common Sense" ethics can be largely derived from utilitarianism read a little oddly, in the light of changing notions of "common sense". And his conviction that moral difficulties are generally addressed by an appeal to utilitarian considerations seems like wishful thinking, though certainly utilitarianism serves as an excellent common denominator when people with different ideas about ethics interact.

I am likewise unconvinced that Sidgwick has covered all the bases by considering these three systems. He gives short shrift to approaches that consider character to be paramount, for instance.

For all that, this book deserves its fame. Sidgwick is by and large thorough, clear, cogent, and fair.

You can find the complete text at the University of Texas, as part of its Classical Utilitarianism Web Site.