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Desire and Will in Sidgwick and Green

  • John Skorupski (a1)

This paper examines T. H. Green's and Henry Sidgwick's differing views of desireand the will, and connectedly, their differing views of an individual's good and freedom. It is argued that Sidgwick makes effective criticisms of Green, but that important elements in Green's idealist view of an individual's good and freedom survive the criticism and remain significant today. It is also suggested that Sidgwick's own account of an individual's good is unclear in an important way.

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1 Richter Melvin, The Politics of Conscience, T. H. Green and His Age, London, 1964 (Thoemmes Press reprint, 1996), p. 100.

2 A. and Sidgwick E. M., Henry Sidgwick: A Memoir, London, 1906, p. 395.

3 'Spencer and Green represent two lines of thought divergent from my own in opposite directions, but agreeing in that they do not treat Ethics as a subject that can stand alone. Spencer bases it on Science, Green on Metaphysics. Sidgwick Henry, Lectures on the Ethics of Green, Spencer and Martineau, London, 1902, p. 1. Henceforth referred to as Lectures.

4 Unless, that is, we are caught up in the famous ‘dualism of the practical reason’, in which case, Sidgwick thinks, only a moral ordering of the world might save us–so ethics may after all require a religious postulate (though he does not actuallysay that it can be given one). But that will not be our topic here.

5 Irwin T. H., ‘Victorians and Greek ethics’, Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. Schultz Bart, Cambridge, 1992, p. 280.

6 See e.g. Nicholson Peter, The Political Philosophy of the British Idealists, Cambridge, 1990; David Brink, ‘Perfectionism and the Common Good: Themes in T. H. Green’ (forthcoming).

7 To be found especially in the incisive lecture V (‘Green's Account of the Moral Ideal’) in Lectures. My disagreement with Green is in one respect greater than Sidgwick's. For Sidgwick actually agrees with Green that the good of the agent must be acknowledged as the criterion for the rationality of action–it's just that he also thinks that general good, impartially conceived, has an equal and distinct claim to be the criterion for the rationality of action. How this ‘dualism’ could even be satisfactorily formulated is far from clear; but in any case the point on which Sidgwick and Green agree, that an action is rational only so far as it promotes the good of the agent, seems to me false. See my ‘Three Methods and a Dualism’, forthcoming in Proceedings of the British Academy.

8 A brief but comprehensive account of Sidgwick's criticisms of Green can be found in Sehneewind J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, Oxford, 1977, pp. 401–11.

9 Green's views on these questions are set out mostly in Green Thomas Hill, Prolegomena to Ethics, 5th edn., Oxford, 1906. (Henceforth referred to as Prolegomena, with section and page number.) See book II, ‘The Will’; also chapter 1, ‘Good and Moral Good’, of book III. Sidgwick's discussion of Green's views is in lectures II—V of his lectures on Green in Lectures. His own view of the questions is in book I, chapters 4–5, 7 and 9, of his The Methods of Ethics, 6th edn., London, 1901 (henceforth referred to as Methods). For his discussion of Green's metaphysics, see ‘The Metaphysics of T. H. Green’, in Sidgwick Henry, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant, and Other PhilosophicalLectures and Essays, London, 1905, pp. 209322.

10 Prolegomena, § 87, p. 100.

11 Ibid., § 102, p. 115.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., § 103, p. 116. Motive, he says, is to want as perception is to sensation.

14 Ibid., § 95, p. 106.

15 Ibid., § 115, p. 130.

16 Lectures, p. 32. Cp: ‘If it is a genuine definition that we want of what is common to all acts of willing, we must say that such an act is one in whicha self-conscious individual directs himself to the realisation of some idea, as to an object in which for the time he seeks self-satisfaction’. Prolegomena, § 154, p. 174.

17 Though he does not think that all action involves volition: ‘there is the psychological question whether the initiation of action takes place under the influence of desire without the psychical fact of resolve: certainly I think that in some cases this latter is at any rate evanescent…’. Interestingly he adds ‘that in such cases –in opposition to Green's view(§ 147)–actions are less imputed. It certainly seems to be the common-sense view that in bad actions which have not been preceded by deliberation there is less guilt’. Lectures, p. 27.

18 Cp. §§ 11–21 of the ‘Introduction’ in Hegel's Philosophy of Right.

19 The move from the spontaneity of a desire to its rationality may be defeated, or weakened, for example, by experience of its satisfaction as ‘dead sea fruit’“. (This criterion of reflectively acknowledged spontaneity is at work in Mill's 'proof that happiness is desirable: we spontaneously desire happiness, and we endorse that desire on experience and reflection).

20 I borrow ‘idea’ from Green and Mill; it works better than ‘belief’. Thus I may desire to do or have something even though I ‘know’ (as we say) that it won't really be good for me to do or have; nevertheless, in desiringit I am thinking of it as good to do or have. However, do I in that situation actually believe that it's good to do or have? It seems not.

21 Lectures, p. 26.

22 Ibid., p. 30.

23 Utilitarianism ch. 4, para. 11, Collected Works of John Stuart Mill(CW), ed. Robson J., Toronto, 19611991, x. 238 f.

24 System of Logic, bk. VI, ch. 3, §4, CW, viii. 842 f.

25 Lectures, p. 30. Cp. p. 27: ‘in deliberate self-sacrificeI have preferred the “good”of others to mine— not consciously identified it with mine’.

26 Methods, p. 112.

27 And its point is also a matter for debate: see Scanlon T. M., What We Owe to Each Other, Cambridge, Mass., 1998, ch. 3.

28 In other words, as ‘what I should practically desire if my desires were in harmony with reason’ – but dropping the qualification ‘assuming my own existence alone to be considered’. Actually a more complicated version of that is needed: see my Ethical Explorations, Oxford, 1999, ch. 6, Appendix, ‘Is My Good What I Have Reason to Desire?’. However the points I make inwhat follows can also be made with the more complicated account. Note also that ‘What there is reason for a person to desire’, and ‘what is desirable for that person’, are normative concepts: it is not proposed that they are definable by some non-normative counterfactual.

29 Obviously if he had had, for example, a temporary tiff with the club, or his children, one might think he was still nevertheless identified with them. It as though his self-identifications are frozen at his death – but only those (as Green might readily put it) which represent his true rather than his apparent or transient ones.

30 ‘Is probably incompatible’: as pointed out above, hedonismas such does not entail that a person's good consists in that person's happiness. However Mill seems to get to hedonism via an argument that does assume that the good of each person is his or her own happiness – his premise being that what one desires is always desired under the idea of one's own happiness. It is this premise that should berejected.

31 Lectures, p. 31. Though given that Sidgwick's hedonism, like Mill's, holds that a person's good is his or her own happiness, mustn't he regard a desire for posthumous fame as irrational?.

32 Extending spontaneity to affective states departs from Kant's seminal use of the notion (in the shape of his contrast between spontaneity and receptivity, and the link he makes between spontaneity and freedom). But it seems to me to be in line with Hegel's and Green's understanding of the rationality of feelings–and also to be right.

33 ‘On the Different Senses of “Freedom” as applied to Will and to the Moral Progress of Man’, in Works of Thomas Hill Green, ed. Nettleship R. L., London, 18851888, ii, p. 332 (hereafter Works). Also in Harris Paul and Morrow John, ed., Green T. H., Lectures onthe Principles of Political Obligation and Other Writings, p. 249.

34 Lectures, p. 15. The discussion to which Sidgwick refers can be found in Methods, ‘Appendix on Kant's Conception of Free Will’.

36 Methods, p. 513. It would also be misleading to suggest that Green wasunaware of this ‘confusion’. Compare this parenthesis from Green's ‘Lectureson the Philosophy of Kant’, Works, ii, pp. 107–8 (cf. pp. 119–21): Was Kant's view that, though the vicious act is not free, yet a man is free to do or not do it;that he freely submits to the loss of freedom, the bondage of heteronomy? In such a view, freedom is used in two senses. The submission could not be said to be rationally determined in Kant's sense; therefore the man does not freely submit in this sense of freedom, but in the sense of having power to do or not to do; whereas the loss of freedom to which the vicious man submits is the loss of it in the sense of rational determination. I think there is this double meaning of freedom in Kant'.

36 ‘Actions from inclination are free as well, for it was also possible to act from freedom’. Kant, Reflexion 6931. The ‘merely verbal’ correction here would be to put ‘imputable’ for ‘free’.

37 Lectures, p. 17.

38 E.g. in Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations, London, 1902, pp. 240 f.

39 In the lecture on ‘Freedom’ already referred to–and which Sidgwick knew, since in Lectures at p. 17 he cites the definition of autonomy as rational determination of the will from it–Green says that freedom in this rational sense (a sense he attributes to St Paul, the Stoics, Kant and Hegel) ‘does not mean that the man or will is undetermined, nor yet does it mean mere self-determination, which (unlessdenied altogether, as by those who take the strictly naturalistic view of human action) must be ascribed equally to the man whose will is heteronomous or vicious, and to him whose will is autonomous’. Works, ii, p. 315 (Harris and Morrow, ed., p. 234).

40 Ibid., p. 27.

41 Ibid., p. 32.

42 So does Mill, and he is no idealist, though he is influenced by Germanideas. True–you don't need to be an idealist. But it's also true that Mill's form of hedonism gets in the way of his registering the idea philosophically, even if he fully responds to it ethically. (Of course you don't have to be a hedonist either.) Sidgwick's hedonism has the same effect; he is in any case also less sympathetic to the idea.

43 For more on this see Allison Henry, Kant's Theory of Freedom, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 133 ff. (Allison discusses an earlier version of these charges made by a contemporary of Kant, Carl Leonhard Reinhold).

44 ‘[I]f we dismiss the identification of Freedom and Rationality… I am afraid that this spirit-stirring appeal to the sentiment of Liberty must be dismissed as idle rhetoric’, Methods, p. 514. There's a definite relish there.

45 ‘Introduction’, Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. Schultz Bart, Cambridge, 1992, p. 2.

46 I am grateful to Roger Crisp and Bart Schultz for comments on an earlier draft.

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