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Deductive Hedonism and the Anxiety of Influence

  • D. Weinstein (a1)

This paper examines the undervalued role of Herbert Spencer in Sidgwick's thinking. Sidgwick recognized Spencer's utilitarianism, but criticized him on the ground that he tried to deduce utilitarianism from evolutionary theory. In analysing these criticisms, this paper concludes that Spencer's deductive methodology was in fact closer to Sidgwick's empiricist position than Sidgwick realized. The real source of Sidgwick's unhappiness withSpencer lies with the substance of Spencer's utilitarianism, namely its espousal of indefeasible moral rights.

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1 Bloom Harold, The Anxiety of Influence, London and New York, 1975.

2 Marcus Singer therefore exaggerates in suggesting that Sidgwick's ‘neglect of Darwin and evolutionary theory(although Spencer comes in for some notice in it)may be the single greatest gap’ in The Methods of Ethics which Sidgwick ‘tried to fill’ in his 1876 ‘The Theory of Evolution and Its Application to Practice’. See Singer Marcus G., ‘Sidgwick and Nineteenth-Century British Ethica)Thought’, Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. Schultz Bart, Cambridge, 1992, p. 76. See, too, Jones E. E. Constance, ‘Preface’, Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. Herbert Spencer, and J. Martineau, London, 1902, p. v, where she says that Sidgwick eventually ‘came to regard the Transcendentalist and Evolutionist schools as the principal rivals in contemporary English Ethics of his own system’. And see Schneewind J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, Oxford, 1977, p. 237, where Schneewind claims that Sidgwick wrote more often about Spencer than about any of his other contemporaries.

3 Sidgwick first reproached Spencer in the first edition of The Methods of Ethics, aiming his criticisms at Spencer's early [1851], Social Statics, New York, 1970. Spencer responded toSidgwick in his 1879 The Data of Ethics which eventually became Part I of his The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols., Indianapolis, 1978 [1879–93]. Sidgwick, in turn, replied to Spencer's rejoinder in ‘Mr. Spencer's Ethical System’, Mind, v (1880), to which Spencer responded with Replies to Criticisms’ in Mind, vi (1881) republished as ‘Appendix E, Replies to Criticisms’, Principles, ii. Sidgwick had the last word in his posthumous Lectures.

4 Weinstein D., Equal Freedom and Utility, Cambridge, 1998, ch. 6.

5 See especially Hofstadter Richard, Social Darwinism in American Thought, Boston, 1955, ch. 2. Jagdish Hattiangadi continues perpetuating the myth that Spencer was a vulgar social Darwinistby claiming that he invented social Darwinism whose ‘popularity with some despicable political movements in the twentieth century(e.g., with the National Socialists, or Nazis)’ was so devastatingly pernicious. In short, in so far as Nazis were social Darwinists like Spencer, Spencer was therefore a Nazi eugenicist. See Hattiangadi Jagdish, ‘Philosophy of Biology in the Nineteenth Century’ The Nineteenth Century, Routledge History of Philosophy, ed. Ten C. L., London, 1994, vii. 288 f. Also see Ruse Michael, ‘Social Biology’, The CambridgeDictionary of Philosophy, ed. Audi Robert, Cambridge, 1999, p. 854, where Ruse says that critics of sociobiology have argued that it is a ‘manifestation of social Darwinism, a nineteenthcentury philosophy owing more to Herbert Spencer than to CharlesDarwin, supposedly legitimating extreme laissez-faire economics and an unbridled societal struggle for existence’. For Spencer's qualms about laissez-faire, see his claim that land nationalization followed ineluctably from the law of equal freedom. See my Equal Freedom, ch. 7, for a critical assessment of Spencer's waffling on land nationalization. For Sidgwick's criticisms of Spencer's land nationalization proposal, see Sidgwick Henry, The Elements of Politics, 4th edn., London, 1919 [1891], pp. 146–8 and Sidgwick, Lectures, pp. 282–9.And for Spencer's response to Sidgwick's criticisms in Elements, see ‘Spencer to Sidgwick, October 12, 1891’, Sidgwick Papers, Wren Library, Cambridge University, Add. Ms.c.95.89, where Spencer says that, though he continues to adhere to his ‘original view, in so far as the pure equity of the matter is concerned’, he now calculates [empirically] that land nationalization ‘would be economically very disadvantageous’. I am indebted to Bart Schultz for bringing this letter to my attention.

6 Spencer Herbert, ‘Evolutionary Ethics’, Various Fragments, New York, 1898, p. 126. See Sidgwick Henry, ‘The Relation of Ethics to Sociology’, Miscellaneous Essays and Addresses, London, 1904, p. 269, where Sidgwick similarly insists that ethics entails ‘Vigorous resistance’ to, rather than ‘acquiescence in the drift of events’.

7 Ibid., p. 128.

8 For Sidgwick's influence on Moore, see Schneewind, p. 16. Schneewind, by the way, views Sidgwick's criticisms of Spencer as universally devastating. For Schneewind, moreover, Spencer's ‘muddled eclecticism and dogmatic eccentricity’ combined Darwinism and extreme laissez-faire(pp. 176 f., 274and384–92).

9 Sidgwick, Lectures, p. 145. It is unclear whether Sidgwick understood Spencer as therefore defining good as pleasure. But see Lectures, p. 145, where Sidgwick observes: ‘Now here we must distinguish inquiry into the meaning of words from inquiry into ethical principles. I agree with Mr. Spencer in holding that “pleasure is the ultimate good”, but not in the meaning which he gives the word “good”. Indeed if “good”(substantive)means “pleasure”, the proposition just stated would be a tautology, and a tautology cannot be an ethical principle’.

10 Ibid., p. 146. Moore retreats uncharacteristically at onepoint likewise conceding that Spencer may simply have been a ‘naturalistic Hedonist’ for whom the ‘more evolved, though not itself the better, is a criterion, because a concomitant, of the better’. See Moore G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge, 1994, p. 55.

11 Sidgwick, Lectures, p. 146.

12 Indeed, Sidgwick reminds us, life-denying actions are sometimes pleasurable: ‘But there is no reason why all actions injurious to the organism should be painful;in fact some–as the absorption of a fatal does of laudanum–are apparently not so’. Ibid., p. 149.

13 Sidgwick Henry, ‘Public Morality’, Practical Ethics, Oxford, 1998 [1897], pp. 31 f.

14 Sidgwick Henry, Outlines of the History of Ethics For English Readers, London, 1946 [1886], p. 255.

15 Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn., Indianapolis, 1981 [1907], pp. 183–6.

16 Ibid., p. 190.

17 Recall Sidgwick's criticism, noted above, that Spencer naively assumed that lifepreserving actions were always concomitantly pleasurable.

18 Ibid., p. 192. Likewise, we should not assume that ‘a varied and many-sided life is the happiest’ (p. 193).

19 Ibid., p. 195.

20 Sidgwick, Lectures, p. 165.

21 Ibid., p. 166.

22 Ibid., pp. 174 f.

23 Ibid., p. 175.

24 Sidgwick Henry, ‘Is the Distinction Between “Is”and“Ought”Ultimate and Irreducible?’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, ii (1892–4), 89.

25 Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 467 f.

26 Ibid., p. 468.

27 Ibid., pp. 470 f.

28 Ibid., p. 474.

29 Sidgwick, ‘Mr. Spencer's Ethical System’, 222 f.

30 Sidgwick, Lectures, p. 249.

31 Sidgwick, Methods, p. xxiii. Italics mine.

32 Spencer Herbert, The Man Versus the State, Indianapolis, 1981 [1884], p. 144.

33 Spencer, Principles, i. 202. Italics mine.

34 Ibid., p. 195. Also see p. 203 where Spencer says that ‘this condition [respect for basic rights] to social equilibrium does not admit of variation’. It must be ‘fulfilled before complete life, that is greatest happiness, can be attained in any society’.

35 Sidgwick, ‘Mr. Spencer's Ethical System’, 222. See as well quotation cited as note 19.

36 Spencer, ‘Appendix E’, p. 489. Italics mine.

37 However, see Sidgwick's concession in Sidgwick Henry, ‘The Theory of Evolution in its Application to Practice’, Mind, i (1876), 66, that Spencer's explanation of the development morality is ‘highly plausible’. And see where Sidgwick concludes, against Spencer so he thinks, that ‘the symbolical representation and comparison of experienced pleasures and pains which we call the exercise of practical reason, is only the final phase of that adaptation of the [human] organism to its circumstances which in its earlier phases took place by the development of these secondary instincts: that, in short, if Instinct is really implicit(utilitarian)reason, it is better to perform the calculation explicitly’.

38 Spencer, Principles, i. 204.

39 For Sidgwick's rejection of Lamarckianism, see Philosophy, pp. 138 f. For an account of the relationship between use-inheritance and moral progress inSpencer, see my Equal Freedom pp. 2331.

40 Spencer Herbert, The Study of Sociology, Ann Arbor, 1969 [1873], pp. 279 f.

41 Spencer, Principles, ii. 260.

42 Spencer, The Man Versus the State, pp. 162–5. The law of equal freedom holds that ‘every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercisehis faculties compatible with the possession of the like liberty by every other man’. See Spencer, Social Statics, New York, 1970 [1851], p. 69. See my Equal Freedom, chs. 2–3 for a detailed analysis of Spencer's law of equal freedom.

43 Sidgwick was not always entirely fooled by Spencer's misleading terminology. For instance, in his critical and penetrating discussion of Spencer's conceptions of ‘Absolute’ and ‘Relative Ethics’ in Lectures, Sidgwick concludes that regarding the latter, ‘it is made clear that Mr. Spencer … does not really offer us any other general system than Empirical Utilitarianism’ (p. 219). In addition, in a later chapter discussing Spencer's conception of rights as logical ‘corollaries’ of the law of equal freedom, Sidgwick claims that Spencer frequently adjusts his purported deductions ‘by considerations such as those by which empirical Utilitarianism is guided’ (p. 279). Indeed, much of Spencer's discussion of justice in part IV of The Principles of Ethics is plainly empirical. In applying the corollaries of the law of equal freedom to the dilemmas of public life, Spencer often appeals to conventional utilitarian expediency. For instance, he significantly qualifies the radical feminism, pro-unionism and land reformism of his earlier works on the basis of traditional utilitarian calculations. For a recent example that mistakenly takes Spencer's ‘rational’ utilitarianism at face value, see Taylor M. W., Men Versus the State:Herbert Spencer and Late Victorian Individualism, Oxford, 1992, ch. 6. Taylor also wrongly holds that Spencer saw himself as advocating traditional natural rights(p. 241). And for an example in which Sidgwick likewise wrongly accuses Spencer of defending natural rights, see Sidgwick Henry, ‘D. G. Ritchie:Natural Rights’, Mind, n.s., iv (1895), 386.

44 For a more in-depth discussion of the misleading nature of Spencer's rational utilitarian methodology, see my Equal Freedom, pp. 156–73.

45 Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 475 f.

46 Ibid., p. 479. In referring to his ‘method of pure empirical Hedonism’, as the ‘utilitarian art of morality’, Sidgwick adds that it will nevertheless ‘lay various sciences under contribution’. Sidgwick's utilitarianism, in short, is neither deductive nor strictly scientific but rather a skill thatdraws on social sciences, like political economy, for determining what strategies for maximizing happiness are most suited to what circumstances. But also see Sidgwick Henry, ‘Professor Calderwood on Intuitionism in Morals’, Mind, i (1876), 564, where Sidgwick likewise labels his own variety of utilitarianism ‘Rational Utilitarianism’.

47 Ibid., p. 455. And what Allan Gibbard writes about Sidgwick could apply to Spencer just as well: ‘Shifting from unconscious utilitarianism to conscious utilitarianism allows us to apply scientific techniques of felicific assessment to further the achievement of the old, unconscious goal’. Gibbard Allan, ‘Inchoately Utilitarian Common Sense:The Bearing of a Thesis of Sidgwick's on Moral Theory’, The Limits of Utilitarianism, ed. Miller Harlan B. and Williams William H., Minneapolis, 1982, p. 72.

48 Robert Shaver has pointed out to me that it is unclear why Spencer thinks that deductively discovering the necessary conditions of happiness is equivalent to formulating the principles of ‘Absolute’ as opposed to ‘Relative Ethics’ (which Spencer concedes are empirical). Shaver, in effect, seems to be implying, following Sidgwick, that there is no reason to regard deductive hedonism as anything but empirical. Alternatively, perhaps there is no reason to conclude that it generates indefeasible moral rules only.

49 Sidgwick, Methods, pp. 177 f. Italics mine.

50 For the full text of Spencer's letter to Mill, see Spencer Herbert, An Autobiography, 2vols., London, 1904, ii, pp. 88 f.

51 Spencer, Principles, i. 90.

52 ‘Mill to Herbert Spencer, February 25, 1863’ in The Life and Letters of Herbert Spencer, ed. Duncan D., London, 1908, p. 108. Also see Mill J. S., Utilitarianism, ed. Robson John M., Toronto, 1969 [1861], Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, x. 258, note, where Mill says: ‘With the exception of the word “necessarily” [from Spencer's letter to Mill], I have no dissent to express from this doctrine; and (omitting that word) I am not aware that any modern advocate of utilitarianism is of a different opinion’.

53 InLectures, pp. 182–6, Sidgwick claims that Spencer's;s ‘polemic’ against Bentham and Mill in The Principles of Ethics is based on a ‘misunderstanding of these authors’ that is ‘so complete that it can only be accounted for on the supposition of his having read their writings very partially.’ He misunderstands them because he mistakenly criticizes both for taking ‘universal happinessthe direct object of pursuit’ rather than the indirect aim. Sidgwick is probably justified in accusing Spencer of not having read Bentham and Mill's writings attentively. Spencer was a notoriously spotty and impatient reader of philosophy. But, as we have seen, Sidgwick wrongly interprets Spencer's reading of, and sympathy with, Mill's indirect, liberal utilitarianism. Spencer and Mill seem to have understood each other quite well, differing onlyover how stringently fundamental moral rights should be taken. Hence, Spencer and Mill's differences were pretty much identical to Spencer and Sidgwick's. Both faulted Spencer for his rights' indefeasibility though Mill saw this difference as testifying to how similar their versions of liberal utilitarianism otherwise were whereas Sidgwick took this difference as indicating how different Spencer's deductive hedonism was from his own(and Bentham and Mill's) empirical variety.

54 I am indebted to Bart Schultz, Robert Shaver, Marcus Singer, Roger Crisp and Avihu Zakai for their helpful criticisms of earlier drafts of this essay.

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