Henry Sidgwick


Henry Sidgwick was a british philosopher and a politician. These two qualifications are among many others, as he was quiet multidisciplinary. In fact he was also a poet, a sociologist and was interested in psychology, he was one of the founders of the Society for Psychical research, society of which he was the first president and was with his wife, Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, very active in the realisation of numerous projects for the society.
Henry Sidgwick lived all his life during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) as he born on May 31, 1838, at Skipton, Yorkshire, and died on August 28, 1900. It is possible to say that he was a " typical " representative of his time, even d'avant garde, he was a modernist as well as a traditionalist, he could understand that the second half of the 19th century was a turning point in the world's evolution and that the one who had the greatest power at this time, the United Kingdom, would, in the future, submit to a Nation that was one of there colonies once before. He also imaginated in " The Elements of Politics " (1891), the creation of a Union of the Western European Countries, Union that would act as an arbitrator between the coutries of Western Europe.

In October 1855, Sidgwick started living in Cambridge University where he lived untill his death in 1900. He was a brilliant student and an active one, he was admitted to the very closed circle of the Cambridge Apostles. He took his degree in 1859 and was, the same year, elected to a Fellowship at the Trinity College Cambridge and appointed Assistant Tutor. In 1869 he resigned this Fellowship, as he was not anymore conviced of his religious belief and could not honnestly submit the 39 articles of the Church of England. As long as this law existed, he was appointed to an other position wich didn't require such an agreement. In 1885, when this law was abrogated, Henry Sidgwick took his Fellowship back. In 1883 he was elected Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Henry Sidgwick always worked at the Trinity College of Cambridge where he taught Human Science, Moral Philosophy and Political Science. He was offered to teach at Harvad University and refused as he wasn't interested. He was very found of Cambridge not only because he lived, studied and taught there, but also because he was very active in reforming Trinity College.
One of his reformes is the opening, in 1871 of the Newnham College, offering higher education for women (one of the first University for women). When the Newnham College opened in 1875, Mrs Clough became its first principal

In 1882 he founded with Edmund Gurney (1847-1888) English Psychologist and Fellow at Cambridge, Frederic William Henry Myers (1843-1901) English Poet and Essayist, classical lecturer at Trinity College, William Flatcher Barrett (1844-1925) English Physicist and Professor of Physics at Dublin University and Edmund Dawson Rogers (1823-1910) English Journalist and Spiritualist, the Society for Psychical Researchone of the first association for learning "more about events and abilities commonly described as "psychic" "paranormal" by supporting research, sharing information and encouraging debate" and "to examine paranormal phenomena in a scientific and unbiased way".

"Henry Sidgwick's book, Methods of Ethics, was published in 1874, a year after the death of John Stuart Mill. This book represents the deepest and most systematic effort to analyze the difficulties of Mill's philosophy and to surmount them to reach a satisfying philosophical version of classic utilitarianism. This book had a great influence in the 19th century and until now, specially on John Rawls' conceptions of justice as equity (or fairness) of moral intuition and the method of the balance, which are very close to Sidgwick's conceptions. We owe him several anticipations about contemporary moral philosophy, such as, among others, the difference between "average" utility and total (complete) utility, the notion of optimal popularization, of the importance of these rules and the problems of the collective action. Less innovative and eloquent than Mill, but with a deeper and more rigorous, he managed to emancipate ethics of psychology and made an independent discipline. (…) His greatest merit was, doubtless, to see that the crucial and unsolved problem of utilitarianism was sitting in moral obligation, the duty of scarifying one's personal happiness to that of the largest number. There was in Bentham as well as in Mill an unsolved dilemma between what Sidgwick called "universalistic hedonism" which led sacrifice one's happiness for the wellbeing of the group, and "psychological hedonism" or selfishness which urged anyone to only search for his own happiness. Both are made compatible by the "sanctions" of consciousness, of the society, etc., by the habits of education, but neither Bentham nor Mill explained why the result of this would be an obligation which would bind all rational beings. It is not so much the weakness of its epistemologist basis and the value of the "proof", that he could set against intuitionism which worried Sidgwick in utilitarianism that the logical impossibility to deduct the individual search for happiness from the necessity of maximizing general happiness, to the point that one had to sacrifice his own happiness. Is it thus a rational attitude? - wondered Sidgwick. (…)The question which worried Sidgwick and which he anticipated on 20th century moral philosophy was the question about the justification of the obligation, and not that of the origin of the moral sentiments and he strongly distinguished the Ethics (…) from psychology. His ambition was about a true ethical philosophy in which the first principles of would be "axioms" based on rigorous criteria." (see: C. Audard: Anthologie historique et critique de l'utilitarisme, t.2)


Abstracts of Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics:

Book IV - Chapter I

By Utilitarianism is here meant the ethical theory, that the conduct which, under any given circumstances, is objectively right, is that which will produce the greatest amount of happiness on the whole; that is, taking into account all whose happiness is affectd by the conduct. It would tend to clearness if we might call this principle, and the method based upon it, by some such name as "Universalistic Hedonism": and I have therefore sometimes ventured to use this term, in spite of its cumbrousness.
Assuming, then, that the average happiness of human beings is a positive quantity, it seems clear that, supposing the average happiness enjoyed remains undiminished, Utilitarianism directs us to make the umber enjoying it as great as possible. But if we foresee as possible that an increase in numbers will be accompanied by a decrease in average happiness or vice versa, a point arises which has not only never been formally noticed but which seems to have been substantially overlooked by many Utilitarians. For if we take Utilitarianism to prescribe, as the ultimate end of action, happiness on the whole, and not any individual's happiness, unless considered as an element of the whole, it would follow that, if the additional population enjoy on the whole positive happiness, we ought to weight the amount of happiness gained by the extra number against the amount of happiness lost by the remainder. So that, strictly conceived, the point up to which, on Utilitarian principles, population ought to be encouraged to increase, is not that at which average happiness is the greatest possible (…) but that at which the product formed by multiplying the number of persons living into the amount of average happiness reaches its maximum.
Utilitarian formula seem to supply no answer to this question: at least we have to supplement the principle of seeking the greatest happiness on the whole by some principle of Just or Right distribution of this happiness. The principle which most Utilitarians have either tacitly or expressly  adopted is that of pure equality – as given in Bentham's formula, "everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one." And this principle seems the only one which does not need a special justification; for as we saw, it must be reasonable to treat any one man in the same way than any other, if there be no reason apparent fro treating him differently.

Book IV - Chapter III

If we consider the relation of Ethics to Politics from a Utilitarian point of view, the question, what rules of conduct for the governed should be fixed by legislators and applied by judges, will be determined by the same kind of forecast of consequences as will be used in setting all questions of private morality: we shall endeavour to estimate and balance against each other the effects of such rules on the general happiness. In so far, however, as we divide the Utilitarian theory of private conduct from that of legislation, and ask which is prior, the answer would seem to be different in respect of different parts of the legal code.

Book I - Chapter IV

The question whether all desire has in some degree the quality of pain, is one of psychological rather than ethical interest; so long as it is admitted that it is often not painful in any degree comparable to its intensity as desire, so that its volitional impulse cannot be explained as a case of  aversion to its own painfulness. (…) the conscious active impulses are so far from being always directed towards the attainment of pleasure or avoidance of pain for ourselves, that we can find everywhere in consciousness extra-regarding impulses, directed towards something that is not pleasure, nor relief from pain; and, indeed, a most important part of our pleasure depends upon the existence of such impulses: while on the other hand they are in many cases so far incompatible with the desire with our own pleasure that the two kinds of impulse do not easily coexist in the same moment of consciousness ; and more occasionally (but by no means really)the two come into irreconcilable conflict, and prompt to opposite  courses of action. And this incompatibility (though it is important to notice it in other instances) is no doubt specially prominent in the case of the impulse towards the end which most markedly competes in ethical controversy with pleasure: the love of virtue for its own sake, or desire to do what is right as such.



Sidgwick as a Bachelor, a middleaged man an as an old man


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