Skip to main content

Sidgwick, Concern, and the Good

  • Stephen Darwall (a1)

Sidgwick maintains, plausibly, that the concept of a person's good is a normative one and takes for granted that it is normative for the agent's own choice and action. I argue that the normativity of a person's good must be understood in relation to concern for someone for that person's own sake. A person's good, I suggest, is what one should (rationally) want for that person in so far as one cares about him, or what one should want for him for his sake. I examine Sidgwick's defence of the axioms of rational prudence and argue that it is powerless to convince anyone who lacks self-concern or thinks he has no reason to care for himself. To the extent that Sidgwick is persuasive, I argue, it is because he insinuates an assumption of self-concern. Similarly, Sidgwick's defence of the axiom of rational benevolence tacitly assumes, not just impersonality, but equal concern.

Hide All

1 At least, he is ‘for English readers’. Sidgwick Henry, Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers, 6th edn., London, 1931.

2 G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica, rev. edn., with the Preface to the second edition and other papers, ed. Thomas Baldwin, Cambridge, 1993, p. 150.

3 For Moore's argument that egoism is incoherent, see Moore, pp. 150–6. Sidgwick Henry, The Methods of Ethics 7th edn., London, 1907, pp. 507–9. Further references to The Methods will be placed parenthetically in the text.

4 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, ch. 1, para. 3.

5 Moore, p. 57.

6 According to Moore, although intrinsic goodness is not itself an intrinsic property, it nonetheless depends only on the intrinsic properties of whatever has it. See ‘The Conception of Intrinsic Value’, which is included in the revised edition of Principia Ethica, p. 295.

7 This is an important theme of Frankena William K., ‘Obligation and Value’, The Philosophy of G. E. Moore, ed. Schilpp Paul A., Salle La, IL, 1968. For a discussion of this essay, see Darwall Stephen, ‘Learning From Frankena: A Memorial Essa’, Ethics cvii (1997).

8 Principia Ethica p. 34.

9 See, for example, Brink's David interpretation of Sidgwick along these lines in ‘Sidgwick's Dualism of Practical Reason’, Australasian Journal of Philosophy lxvi (1988).

10 For a more extended defence of this claim, see my ‘Self-Interest and Self-Concern’, Self-interest ed. Paul Ellen F., Cambridge, 1997, and Social Philosophy & Policy xiv (1997);Empathy, Sympathy, Care’, Philosophical Studies lxxxix (1998); and Valuing Activity’, Social Philosophy & Policy xvi (1999) and Human Flourishing, ed. Paul Ellen F., Cambridge, 1999.

11 Here I mean only that this conclusion would be reasonable ‘hypothetically’, that is, on the assumed premise that there is no reason to care about someone (or oneself). Moreover, it must also be the case that one does not think that the lack of reason for self–concern (or reason for lack of self-concern) is itself grounded in reasons of one's own good and the necessity of pursuing that end indirectly. I am indebted to Roger Crisp for reminding me of this latter point, which is important to Sidgwick under the title of the ‘paradox of egoistic hedonism’, and which he takes from Butler.

12 Utilitarianism, ch. 4, paras. 6–7.

13 For the idea that valuing a person's welfare comes from valuing the person, see Anderson Elizabeth, Value in Ethics and Economics, Cambridge, MA, 1993, pp. 26–30.

14 I am indebted to David Velleman for the term ‘indirect object’ in this context.

15 Mencius trans. Lau D. C., London, 1970, p. 82.

16 ‘From these two rational intuitions we may deduce, as a necessary inference, the maxim of Benevolence in an abstract form: viz. That each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him’ (p. 382).

17 Schneewind distinguishes four different axioms (or four different formulations of the axiom) of prudence: (PI) ‘One ought to have impartial concern for all parts of one's conscious life’; (P2) ‘Hereafter as such is to be regarded neither less or more than Now’; (P3) ‘Mere difference in priority and posteriority in time is not a reasonable ground for having more regard to the consciousness of one moment than to that of another’; (P4) ‘A smaller present good is not to be preferred to a greater future good’. Schneewind J. B., Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy Oxford, 1977, pp. 293–6.

18 Rawls John, A Theory of Justice Cambridge, MA, 1971, pp. 293–8.

19 Note, at this point we are considering hedonistic versions of these axioms.

20 This is a metaethical theory of the concept of a person's good or of what a person's good is (as opposed to what is good for her). Sidgwick's normative theory of a person's good is a version of hedonism: nothing can benefit a person intrinsically other than her own pleasurable mental states.

21 Ignoring, of course, interactive or ‘organic’ effects.

22 This is the ‘rational care’ account of a person's good or welfare that I develop in ‘Self-Interest and Self-Concern’. A natural objection is that it may seem we cannot define what it is to care for someone without an independent notion of a person's good. In ‘Empathy, Sympathy, Care’, I argue that we don't need to define concern for someone for that person's sake in order to make use of it in a rational care theory of welfare if, as I argue is plausible based on the psychological literature, sympathetic concern is something like a psychological natural kind. I am grateful to Bart Schultz for pressing me on this point.

23 Robert Shaver has suggested to me that Sidgwick might plug the gap with the axiom that ‘I am bound to aim at good generally’ (p. 382). To accept this, however, is already to accept that one's own good makes a claim on one (and anyone) from an agent-neutral perspective.

24 At least, as giving such a reason to any being who is capable of responding with sympathetic concern. I argue for these claims in Impartial Reason Ithaca, NY, 1983, pp. 161–3.

25 Geach Peter, ‘On Belief About OneselfAnalysis xviii (1957); Castafieda Hector-Neri, ‘“He”’ A Study in the Logic of Self-Consciousness’, Ratio, viii (1966); Boer Steven and Lycan William G., ‘Who, Me?Philosophical Review, lxxxix (1980); Lewis David, ‘Attitudes De Dicto and De Se’, Philosophical Review lxxxviii (1979); and Perry John, ‘The Problem of the Essential Indexical, Nous xiii (1979).

26 It is important to bear in mind that I am making these claims not about just any intrinsic desire for one's own good, but about any such desire that springs from self-concern, i.e., a desire for one's good for one's sake.

27 This doesn't mean, of course, either that one cares equally about all people or conscious beings, or even necessarily that one should care equally, in every relevant sense. That care is equally warranted for all does not entail that equal care is warranted.

28 Of course, it might be possible to conceive of the point of view of the universe as itself a benevolent perspective as in various religious conceptions. Bart Schultz reminds me that Sidgwick frequently emphasizes the importance of empathy and sympathy. See, for example, Sidgwick's favourable references to Smith Adam on sympathy in Methods, pp. 434–44 and his remarks on sympathy in Practical Ethics: A Collection of Essays and Addresses ed. Bok Sissela, Oxford, 1998, p. 61.

29 I am indebted to Roger Crisp, Robert Shaver, and Bart Schultz for very helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0953-8208
  • EISSN: 1741-6183
  • URL: /core/journals/utilitas
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 20 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 213 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 21st November 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.