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On Sidgwick's Demise: A Reply to Professor Deigh


In ‘Sidgwick's Epistemology’, John Deigh argues that Henry Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics ‘was not perceived during his lifetime as a major and lasting contribution to British moral philosophy’ and that interest in it declined considerably after Sidgwick's death because the epistemology on which it relied ‘increasingly became suspect in analytic philosophy and eventually [it was] discarded as obsolete’. In this article I dispute these claims.

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1 Deigh John, ‘Sidgwick's Epistemology’, Utilitas 19 (2007), pp. 435–46. All bare parenthetical references in the text are to this work.

2 Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907). Hereinafter ME.

3 Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th–10th edns. (London, 1903), vol. 32, p. 618 and Leslie Stephen, ‘Henry Sidgwick’, Mind 10 (1901), pp. 1–17.

4 Stephen, ‘Henry’, pp. 7 and 15.

5 I owe the point in this sentence to Robert Shaver.

6 Sidgwick Papers, Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University, Add.Ms.c.93.22.

7 Sidgwick Papers, Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University, Add.Ms.c.93.71.

8 Calderwood Henry, ‘Mr. Sidgwick on Intuitionalism’, Mind 1 (1876), p. 206.

9 Bain Alexander, ‘Mr. Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics’, Mind 1 (1876), pp. 185 and 195.

10 Barrett Alfred, ‘The “Suppression” of Egoism’, Mind 2 (1877), p. 167n.

11 Rashdall Hastings, ‘Professor Sidgwick's Utilitarianism’, Mind 10 (1885), p. 200.

12 von Gizycki G., Review of The Methods of Ethics, 4th edn., International Journal of Ethics 1 (1890), p. 120.

13 Green T. H., Prolegomena to Ethics, ed. Brink David (Oxford, 2003). See especially §§ 364–82.

14 Bradley F. H., Ethical Studies (Oxford, 1876) and Mr. Sidgwick's Hedonism (London, 1877).

15 Spencer Herbert, The Data of Ethics (London, 1879).

16 Edgeworth F. Y., New and Old Methods of Ethics (Oxford, 1877) and Mathematical Psychics: An Essay on the Application of Mathematics to the Moral Sciences (London, 1881), pp. 104, 102 and vii (italics in original).

17 Hayward F. H., The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick: Nine Essays, Critical and Expository (London, 1901), p. 15.

18 Moore G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1903).

19 Moore, Principia, p. 17; see also p. 59. The truth of Moore's statement will not concern me here.

20 See Moore G. E., Ethics (London, 1912), chs. 2–3. W. D. Ross (with acknowledgement) and A. J. Ayer (without acknowledgement) do the same. See Ross W. D., The Right and The Good (Oxford, 1930), pp. 78 and Ayer A. J., Language, Truth and Logic (London, 1936), ch. 6. For Sidgwick's arguments, see ME, pp. 2635.

21 McTaggart J. M. E., ‘The Ethics of Henry Sidgwick’, Quarterly Review 205 (1906), pp. 398419.

22 Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2 vols. (Oxford, 1907). See also Rashdall Hastings, Ethics (London, 1913), where much attention is paid to Sidgwick, and Is Conscience an Emotion? (Boston, 1914), in which Rashdall expresses agreement with many of Sidgwick's doctrines; see pp. 42, 113–14, 128, 130 and 183.

23 Rashdall, Theory, vol. 1, p. 83.

24 Barbour G. F., ‘Green and Sidgwick on the Community of the Good’, The Philosophical Review 17 (1908), p. 149.

25 See Prichard H. A., ‘Manuscript on Morals’, Moral Writings, ed. MacAdam Jim (Oxford, 2002), pp. 114–62.

26 Carritt E. F., The Theory of Morals: An Introduction to Ethical Philosophy (Oxford, 1928), p. 143.

27 Lamont W. D., Introduction to Green's Moral Philosophy (London, 1934), p. 172.

28 Lamont, Green's, p. 21. Lamont is referring to Broad's suggestion that Green ‘probably made far more undergraduates into prigs than Sidgwick will ever make into philosophers’. See Broad C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930), p. 144.

29 Lamont, Green's, p. 21.

30 Lamont, Green's, p. 21.

31 Ross W. D., The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford, 1939), p. 27.

32 A decade and a half later, Ross remarks on the ‘careful criticism by Sidgwick’ of ‘Kant's use of the term “freedom”’. See Ross W. D., Kant's Ethical Theory (Oxford, 1954), pp. 83–4.

33 See also Hayward F. H., ‘The True Significance of Sidgwick's “Ethics”’, International Journal of Ethics 11 (1901), pp. 175–87; Jones E. E. Constance, ‘Mr. Hayward's Evaluation of Professor Sidgwick's Ethics’, International Journal of Ethics 11 (1901), pp. 354–60; Hayward F. H., ‘A Reply’, International Journal of Ethics 11 (1901), pp. 360–65; Seth James, ‘The Ethical System of Henry Sidgwick’, Mind 10 (1901), pp. 172–87; Albee Ernest, ‘An Examination of Professor Sidgwick's Proof of Utilitarianism’, The Philosophical Review 10 (1901), pp. 251–60; Barker Henry, ‘A Recent Criticism of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics’, The Philosophical Review 11 (1902), pp. 607–13; Bosanquet Bernard, ‘Hedonism Among Idealists (I.)’, Mind 12 (1903), pp. 202–24; Jones E. E. Constance, ‘Professor Sidgwick's Ethics’, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 4 (1903–4), pp. 3252; Seth James, A Study of Ethical Principles, 12th edn. (New York, 1911); Sorley W. R., ‘Henry Sidgwick’, International Journal of Ethics 11 (1901), pp. 168–74; and Pigou A. C., ‘Some Remarks on Utility’, The Economic Journal 13 (1903), pp. 5863.

34 For a rival account of Sidgwick's epistemology, see Rawls John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass., 1971), p. 51 and Schneewind J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (Oxford, 1977). For an account of Sidgwick's epistemology which has some similarities to Deigh's view, see my ‘Henry Sidgwick's Moral Epistemology’, Journal of the History of Philosophy (forthcoming).

35 Deigh does not, however, cite anyone who dismisses Methods for this reason.

36 For an account of Sidgwick's philosophical intuitions and the role they play in his argument for utilitarianism, see my ‘Sidgwick's Philosophical Intuitions’, Etica & Politica/Ethics and Politics 10 (2008), pp. 185–209. This paper can be found at <>.

37 Whether these philosophers subscribe to all aspects of the traditional intuitionist conception of knowledge is open to dispute, though this will not concern me here.

38 It is far from clear that the differences between Moore and Ross on the one hand and Sidgwick on the other are as stark as Deigh suggests. For a different view, see Hurka Thomas, ‘Moore in the Middle’, Ethics 113 (2003), pp. 599628. Sidgwick's denial that moral claims are descriptive of the natural world may be enough, if Deigh is right, to help him avoid the problems that Deigh points out for the traditional intuitionist conception of epistemology.

39 It is noteworthy that Ross and Prichard claim that there are analogies between mathematical and moral knowledge. See H. A. Prichard, ‘Does Moral Philosophy Rest on a Mistake?’, Moral Writings, ed. Jim MacAdam (Oxford, 2002), p. 13, and Ross, Good, pp. 32–3.

40 Deigh discusses the possibility that a Euclidean could insist that her postulates are self-evident even in light of non-Euclidean alternatives. He rejects this move as ‘unscientific’, since it would entail that we have a ‘special faculty for directly apprehending the nature of physical space’ and ‘natural science cannot allow appeals to faculties beyond the senses as sources of evidence of the nature of the physical world’ (443). His view appears to be that appeals to special faculties in ethics are unproblematic because there is no constraint in ethics on allowing faculties beyond the senses as sources of evidence of the nature of the moral world.

41 See Laurence Bonjour, In Defense of Pure Reason (Cambridge, 1998). Bonjour is a Platonist. He does not hold the view that an appeal to Platonist metaphysics helps him defend the intuitionist epistemology against objections. See Bonjour, p. 158. It should be noted that in contemporary ethics the tack is to defend the traditional intuitionist conception of knowledge in part by renouncing special faculties and non-natural properties. See, for example, Crisp Roger, ‘Sidgwick and the Boundaries of Intuitionism’, Ethical Intuitionism: Re-evaluations, ed. Stratton-Lake Philip (Oxford, 2002), pp. 5675, and Robert Audi, The Good in the Right (Princeton, 2004).

42 Deigh maintains that Russell believes that the axioms of logic are known intuitively (443). Perhaps Russell's thought is that the problems with the traditional intuitionist conception of knowledge are confined to mathematics.

43 Russell Bertrand, Human Society in Ethics and Politics (New York, 1955), p. 93; italics in original. In the same place he notes agreement with some of Sidgwick's views; see pp. 96–7 and 99.

44 Ewing A. C., Second Thoughts in Moral Philosophy (New York, 1959), p. 66. Around the same time, A. J. Ayer was defending reliance on intuition in both mathematics and logic; see The Problem of Knowledge (London, 1956). At the very least this weakens Deigh's claim about the decline of the traditional intuitionist conception of knowledge.

45 Ewing, Second Thoughts, p. 66.

46 Nor is the worry addressed in Oliver A. Johnson's defence of an intuitionist position that has much in common with Sidgwick's view. See Johnson Oliver A., ‘Ethical Intuitionism – A Restatement’, The Philosophical Quarterly 7 (1957), pp. 193203. In his defence Johnson appeals to neither special moral faculties nor non-natural properties.

47 Strawson P. F., ‘Ethical Intuitionism’, Philosophy 24 (1949), pp. 2333.

48 I wish to thank Bart Schultz and, especially, Robert Shaver for helpful comments on an earlier draft, the librarians at the Wren Library, Trinity College, Cambridge University and at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto for research assistance, and the University of Western Ontario's Academic Development Fund and International Research Award programmes for generous research support.

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