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Two Conceptions of Common-Sense Morality

  • Nakul Krishna


Many moral philosophers tend to construe the aims of ethics as the interpretation and critique of ‘common-sense morality’. This approach is defended by Henry Sidgwick in his influential The Methods of Ethics and presented as a development of a basically Socratic idea of philosophical method. However, Sidgwick's focus on our general beliefs about right and wrong action drew attention away from the Socratic insistence on treating beliefs as one expression of our wider dispositions.

Understanding the historical contingency of Sidgwick's approach to ethics can help us reflect on whether there are other ways in which modern ethics can be Socratic.



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1 Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (Abingdon: Routledge, 1949/2009), lx.

2 Op. cit. note 1, lx.

3 W. D. Ross, Foundations of Ethics: The Gifford Lectures Delivered in the University of Aberdeen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1939), 1.

4 Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (London: Macmillan, 1874/1907), 1.

5 Op. cit. note 4, 19.

6 Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Allen Wood (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1785/2002), 21.

7 Robert Macfarlane, The Wild Places (London: Granta Books, 2008), 8.

8 Op. cit. note 7, 9.

9 Op. cit. note 3, 1.

10 Op. cit. note 3, 1. It is notable that he does not mention Hume, whose moral philosophy resists being pressganged into this tradition.

11 Op. cit. note 4, xix–xx.

12 Op. cit. note 6, 19.

13 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 49. The line does not appear in the revised edition, but there is no obvious reason to think Rawls had changed his views.

14 Clifford Geertz, ‘Common Sense as a Cultural System’, in Local Knowledge (New York: Basic Books, 1983), 76.

15 Ian Ravenscroft, ‘Folk Psychology as a Theory’, in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, Fall 2010,

16 See the editor's forward to John Rawls, Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy, ed. Samuel Richard Freeman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), xi for a brief account of Rawls's regard for Sidgwick; the Preface to Derek Parfit, On What Matters, Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 46–56; Singer, Peter, ‘Sidgwick and Reflective Equilibrium’, The Monist 58, no. 3 (1974), 490517 and more recently the co-authored Katarzyna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

17 Here is an example of a characteristic sentence: ‘we are a self-contradiction: we never are what we feel we really are; we really are what we know we are not; and if we became what we are, we should scarcely be ourselves’ (F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1927), 234).

18 For a discussion of a structurally similar (‘aporematic’) method in modern analytic metaphysics, see Sally Haslanger, ‘Feminism in Metaphysics’, in The Cambridge Companion to Feminism in Philosophy, ed. Miranda Fricker and Jennifer Hornsby (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 113–5.

19 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), x.

20 These themes are explored in great depth in Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick – Eye of the Universe: An Intellectual Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

21 The best recent treatment of the concept of common sense in history, with a special focus on the early modern period, is Sophia Rosenfeld, Common Sense: A Political History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

22 Op. cit. note 4, 101–2; emphases in original.

23 More recently, it is most likely its use in the early writings of Derek Parfit (e.g. Parfit, Derek, ‘Is Common-Sense Morality Self-Defeating?’, The Journal of Philosophy 76, no. 10 (October 1, 1979), 533–4) that brought the phrase to new prominence; it may not be a coincidence that the phrase ‘folk psychology’ enters into widespread philosophical use in the same decade.

24 From the preface to the second edition. Op. cit. note 4, xii.

25 Henry Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (London: Macmillan, 1886), 55–6.

26 I am aware that this characterisation of Aristotle as the armchair speculator and of Plato as an empiricist is flagrantly heterodox, but it seems to me plainly true of their ethics.

27 Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 1st edition (Cambridge University Press, 1874), 317.

28 See the helpful discussion of this aspect of Socratic method in Terence Irwin, ‘Common Sense and Socratic Method’, in Method in Ancient Philosophy, ed. Jyl Gentzler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 30–63.

29 The translation is by Jonathan Barnes, quoted in Jonathan Barnes, ‘Aristotle and the Methods of Ethics’, in Method and Metaphysics: Essays in Ancient Philosophy I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 174.

30 The quoted phrase is from Barnes, ‘Aristotle and the Methods’, 177.

31 Op. cit. note 4, 375 note 2.

32 Op. cit. note 4, 1.

33 Op. cit. note 4, 102. For an argument against this way of distinguishing ancient from modern ethics, see Roger Crisp, Reasons and the Good (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 27–35, who argues that all the materials for a ‘quasi-jural’ picture of ethics are to be found in Plato and Aristotle. It does not matter for the present discussion whether Sidgwick's contrast was well-drawn; I quote the passage as evidence of his self-understanding.

34 Op. cit. note 4, 375–6.

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Two Conceptions of Common-Sense Morality

  • Nakul Krishna


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