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Sidgwick on Consequentialism and Deontology: A Critique



In The Methods of Ethics Henry Sidgwick argued against deontology and for consequentialism. More specifically, he stated four conditions for self-evident moral truth and argued that, whereas no deontological principles satisfy all four conditions, the principles that generate consequentialism do. This article argues that both his critique of deontology and his defence of consequentialism fail, largely for the same reason: that he did not clearly grasp the concept W. D. Ross later introduced of a prima facie duty or duty other things equal. The moderate deontology Ross's concept allows avoids many of Sidgwick's objections. And Sidgwick's statements of his own axioms equivocate in exactly the same way for which he criticized deontological ones. Only if they are read as other things equal can they seem intuitive and earn widespread agreement; but that form is too weak to ground consequentialism. And in the form that does yield consequentialism they are neither intuitive nor widely accepted. Sidgwick's arguments against a rival view and for his own were, in multiple ways, unfair.



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1 Rashdall, Hastings, ‘The Commensurability of All Values’, Mind 11 (1902), pp. 145–61, at 148; also The Theory of Good and Evil, 2 vols. (London, 1907), vol. 1, p. 217; vol. 2, p. 41.

2 Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica (Cambridge, 1903), p. 147; also pp. 18, 21, 24–6, 146, 148, 167–9, 180–1.

3 Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, p. 135; vol. 2, p. 42.

4 Moore, Ethics (London, 1965), p. 77; that the principle is synthetic is affirmed on pp. 25–6, 73, 76.

5 See e.g. Laird, John, A Study in Moral Theory (London, 1926), pp. 21–2, 25; Joseph, H. W. B., Some Problems in Ethics (Oxford, 1931), p. 26; Ewing, A. C., The Definition of Good (London, 1947), p. 188; Ethics (London, 1953), pp. 66–7, 82.

6 Sidgwick, Henry, The Methods of Ethics, 7th edn. (London, 1907). Bracketed page references are to this work; earlier editions are cited as ME1, ME2, etc. References to other ethical writings of Sidgwick's are to the collection of his Essays on Ethics and Method, ed. Marcus G. Singer (Oxford, 2000), abbreviated EEM.

7 Ross, W. D., The Right and the Good (Oxford, 1930), ch. 2.

8 For similar present-day accounts see Audi, Robert, The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (Princeton, 2004), pp. 48–9; Parfit, Derek, On What Matters, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2011), vol. 2, pp. 490, 508–9.

9 See also Phillips, David, Sidgwickian Ethics (Oxford, 2011) p. 60.

10 An early and influential use of ‘reflection’ to mean introspection is in Locke, John, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Yolton, J. W. (London, 1977), bk. II, ch. 1, para. 4.

11 Ewing, Ethics, p. 139; Ewing, Value and Reality (London, 1973), pp. 43–4.

12 For a more recent statement see Elga, Adam, ‘Reflection and Disagreement’, Noûs 41 (2007), pp. 478502; the contrary view is defended in Kelly, Thomas, ‘The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement’, Oxford Studies in Epistemology, vol. 1, ed. Hawthorne, J. and Gendler-Szabo, T. (Oxford, 2005), pp. 167–96.

13 See e.g. Schultz, Bart, ‘Introduction’, Essays on Henry Sidgwick, ed. Schultz, B. (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 161, at 28–9, 59 n. 84.

14 Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, p. 83.

15 Hayward, F. H., The Ethical Philosophy of Sidgwick (London, 1901), pp. viii, xviii.

16 Ross, Right and the Good, pp. 18, 28.

17 Ross, Sir David, Foundations of Ethics (Oxford, 1939), pp. 88–9.

18 Broad, C. D., Five Types of Ethical Theory (London, 1930), pp. 217–23.

19 Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, p. 80; also 91–2.

20 Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, p. 92; also 193–4.

21 Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, vol. 1, p. 91; also 83–4. Rashdall acknowledged the possibility of moderate deontology in his later Ethics (London, 1913), p. 46.

22 Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 106; also 148, Ethics, pp. 74–7.

23 Ross, Right and the Good, p. 31, also pp. 29–30, 34n., 142–4; Foundations, pp. 183, 189.

24 See also his Lectures on the Ethics of T. H. Green, Mr. H. Spencer, and J. Martineau, ed. E. E. Constance Jones (London, 1902), pp. 146–77.

25 See also Phillips, Sidgwickian Ethics, pp. 101–3.

26 Pickard-Cambridge, W. A., ‘Two Problems About Duty (I.), (II.), and (III.)’, Mind 41 (1932), pp. 7296, 145–72, 311–40.

27 Ross, Foundations, pp. 94–8.

28 Ross, Foundations, p. 94.

29 Donagan, Alan reports that Whewell took this latter view; see ‘Sidgwick and Whewellian Intuitionism: Some Enigmas’, Canadian Journal of Philosophy 7 (1977), pp. 447–65, at 457–8.

30 Ross denied that it is self-evident that we should prefer promoting the greatest total good to promoting the greatest average good (Foundations, pp. 69–71), and there are similar difficulties about the distribution of happiness in a population, e.g. is it better if it is equal, and if so, how much weight does equality have?

31 Moore, ‘Mr. McTaggart's Ethics’, International Journal of Ethics 13 (1903), pp. 341–70, at 358; McTaggart, John McTaggart Ellis, The Nature of Existence, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1921, 1927), vol. 2, pp. 437–8; Broad, Examination of McTaggart's Philosophy, 2 vols. (Cambridge, 1933, 1938), vol. 2, p. 684.

32 Phillips, Sidgwickian Ethics, p. 96; Shaver, Robert, Rational Egoism (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 74–7, ‘Sidgwick's Axioms and Consequentialism’, Philosophical Review 123 (2014), pp. 173–204, at 179.

33 Shaver, ‘Sidgwick's Axioms’, pp. 174–84.

34 The role of this thesis in Sidgwick's arguments is emphasized in Irwin, Terence, The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study, vol. 3 (Oxford, 2009), pp. 496505.

35 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), pp. 165–7.

36 McTaggart, Nature of Existence, vol. 2, pp. 348–9. Similar claims were made in Carritt, E. F., The Theory of Morals (London, 1928), p. 26; Ewing, Value and Reality, p. 281.

37 Parfit calls Sidgwick's claim about the plain man ‘simply false’ (On What Matters, vol. 1, p. 453).

38 The first edition of The Methods introduced its axioms through a discussion of Kant and Clarke (ME1 357–64), and though in later editions Sidgwick gave a ‘more direct’ statement of his views (ME ix), the material on these philosophers remained.

39 This point about Kant is also made in Irwin, The Development of Ethics, vol. 3, p. 518. If Kant lacked the concept of prima facie duty, his principle of benevolence would have included exception clauses but would still not have been a consequentialist one.

40 Skelton, Anthony, ‘Sidgwick's Philosophical Intuitions’, Etica & Politica/Ethics and Politics 10 (2008), pp. 185209, at 203–4; Shaver, ‘Sidgwick's Axioms’, pp. 185–94, 200.

41 Moore, Principia Ethica, p. 103; Broad, Five Types, pp. 159–60, 253.

42 McTaggart, ‘The Ethics of Henry Sidgwick’, Quarterly Review 205 (1906), pp. 398–409, at 412; Broad, McTaggart, Ellis’, Proceedings of the British Academy 13 (1927), pp. 307–34, at 309.

43 Donagan, ‘Sidgwick and Whewellian Intuitionism’, p. 456; Williams, Bernard, ‘The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and the Ambitions of Ethics’, Making Sense of Humanity (Cambridge, 1995), pp. 153–71, 154.

44 Material in this article is extracted from chapters 5 and 7 of my book British Moral Philosophers from Sidgwick to Ewing (Oxford, forthcoming). For helpful discussion I am indebted to Roger Crisp, Brad Hooker, Robert Johnson, Derek Parfit, David Phillips, Rob Shaver, Wayne Sumner and Peter Vallentyne.

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