WHY READ SIDGWICK TODAY?
My title is derived from a delightful little book that was recently published by my friend John Skorupski: Why Read Mill Today? Skorupski, who is a fellow Sidgwick scholar as well as one of the premier Mill scholars, makes a compelling case. He demonstrates in short compass how powerful Mill’s comprehensive liberalism was (and is), with its fallibilist notion of free thought as unconstrained by any external authority and always open to revision, and urges that the younger Mill’s work stands comparison with that of Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche as one of the “main land masses” in the ocean of 19th century thought (John Skorupski, "Why read Mill today?", London, Routledge, 2006, p. XI). Could any such thing be said of Sidgwick, in answer to the title question?
Of course, given Sidgwick’s more modest name recognition, some might suggest that the preliminary question here is “Who Was Henry Sidgwick?” and that the follow up questions to that should be “What Exactly Did Sidgwick Write?” and “Why Should We Read Sidgwick When No One Else Has Ever Been Much Bothered To Read Him?” These are not questions that tend to arise with Mill, and the situation is only made worse by the fact that Sidgwick – who as most of you know, was a many-sided late Victorian philosopher and educator associated with Cambridge University – tended to favor the weighty tome as a vehicle for his prose. His most famous work, The Methods of Ethics, first appeared in 1874 and ran to a densely argued 473 pages; the other major works to appear during his lifetime, The Principles of Political Economy (1883) and The Elements of Politics (1891) ran to over 500 and 600 pages respectively. There are no snappy little classics here to rival “On Liberty,” “Utilitarianism,” and “The Subjection of Women”. Millians need never worry about Mill being bumped by Sidgwick in the under-quantification, might well insightfully suggest that the relevant questions are “Why Read Some Sidgwick Today?” or “How Much Of Sidgwick Do We Really Need To Read?”. Sidgwick was, and is likely to remain, in large measure, a philosopher’s philosopher and a graduate student’s philosopher.
And yet, having said all that, I remain persuaded that if there are good reasons for both philosophers and a wider public to read Mill today – and there are – then there are surely also good reasons to read Sidgwick, tough as this might be on the wider public, especially when bookstores (in the U.S. at least) are reluctant even to carry Mill’s works on their shelves. After all, as Mill scholarship has made increasingly evident in recent decades, Mill’s liberalism was of a piece with his utilitarian defense of the greatest happiness principle as the ultimate normative standard; without coming to terms with Mill on happiness and the progressive interests of humanity, one cannot come to terms with his liberal defense of the open society. And no one past or present has come to terms with Mill’s utilitarianism as brilliantly as Sidgwick. As Peter Singer, the founder of the animal liberation movement and currently the world’s most prominent champion of utilitarianism, has put it: “Henry Sidgwick is the greatest of the classical utilitarians, far superior to Bentham or Mill in the care with which he examines issues in moral philosophy”. In short, if one wants the best account of classical utilitarianism, one must turn to Sidgwick, rather than to his better known predecessors. The point is conceded by many of Mill’s greatest admirers, such as Skorupski, who in another work wrote:
For while he [Mill] transforms Benthamite notions of what utility is and what the springs of action are, he never questions the principle of utility itself. This inheritance he leaves unprobed: it remains a dogma in his thought. It does not follow that it is wrong,of course, but we cannot look to Mill for a penetrating defence of it.What mainly concerned him was to attain a civilized conception of utility, the human individual’s good. To question whether aggregate utility was indeed the proper test of conduct was simply not on his agenda.
To move to the utility principle we need the principle that a practice can be justified by appeal to the good of individuals, and by appeal to nothing else; and further, that the appeal must be made to
the good of all individuals impartially. It was not Mill but a philosopher of the generation after Mill’s, Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900), who probed these aspects of utilitarianism most deeply (John Skorupski, English-language Philosophy, 1750-1945, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993, p. 67).
Indeed, as many of Sidgwick’s contemporaries recognized, it was Sidgwick, not Mill, who really addressed, in fine academic detail, how utilitarianism compared to egoism, intuitionism, Kantianism, idealism, Darwinism, Aristotelianism, and many other approaches to moral theory and philosophy. Of all the possible candidates, Sidgwick was by far the best for the title of Mill’s philosophical heir. With Sidgwick we truly arrive at a clear crystallization of the core element of utilitarianism, or rather, in Skorupski’s words, of “philosophical utilitarianism”: “every individual’s well-being has absolute value, and… this value must be counted impartially in assessing overall good” (John Skorupski, English-language Philosophy, 1750-1945, p. 101). Sidgwick at least knew what he was doing when he argued for aggregating individual good in a sum total as the way to reach overall good; he knew that there were other options and that his favored view was not uncontroversial. If he did not always capture the best incarnations of, say, the Kantian account of the moral point of view (or “point of view of the Universe”), it was not for want of effort. In fact, the true beauty and value of Sidgwick’s account of classical utilitarianism is arguably to be found in his endless qualifications to that view, which are such that it can plausibly be maintained that the Methods has been a leading source for both utilitarians and their critics.
If I may borrow a bit from my own recent book, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe:
… with Sidgwick, utilitarianism was presented in connection with nearly the whole extraordinary menu of practical and theoretical difficulties that have dogged it ever since: the problem of its rational grounding, especially as against egoism; the problem of formulating “indirect” or “two-level” theories in order to accommodate traditional or commonsense moral rules and/or dispositions; the problem of accounting for friendship and integrity, and, relatedly, the “demandingness” of utilitarianism, especially versus the personal point of view; the problem of supererogation; the problem of universalizability and the special demands of justice, which seem to pose alternative conceptions of impartiality and equitable social arrangements (as opposed to utilitarian aggregation and maximization); the differences between total and average utility calculations, as brought out by the question of optimal population size; the complexities involved in drawing inter – and intrapersonal comparisons of utility; and, not least, the importance for utilitarianism of the nature of personal identity over time. When on looks at the most serious recent attempts to defend utilitarian ethical theory… one finds that they make constant reference to Sidgwick and the agenda that he set (Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 254-255).
There is a considerable, sometimes highly technical literature, on all of these matters, and it all owes a vast debt to Sidgwick. I might add that to my mind it is no coincidence that Peter Singer is such a great admirer of Sidgwick, since Sidgwick’s approach has in his hands allowed ready adaptation to deal with issues in bio-ethics, environmentalism, and the ethical treatment of animals. Indeed, Bentham, Mill, and Sidgwick were all better and
more coherent on the matter of non-human animal well-being (as something to be counted in the ethical calculus) than any of the leading representatives of Christian morality today.
But the point that I want to stress here is that Sidgwick’s highly qualified account of utilitarianism strikes a very helpful and sober note – namely, his defense of it is along the lines of Roger Crisp’s defense of hedonism or Churchill’s defense of democracy, to the effect that it is the worst view except for all of the others. Although his most famous qualification to the view, known as the dualism of the practical reason, has it that the reasons provided by rational egoism are equal in force to those provided by utilitarianism, so that it is a toss up rationally speaking whether to advance my own good or the good of all, this was plainly not his only worry about the inconclusiveness of his views. As Crisp notes, he also worried about hedonism, thinking it plausible account of the good but not as firm as the view that the good, whatever it turned out to be, should be promoted, more good being better than less good. And more generally still, Sidgwick, like Mill, brought to ethics a form of fallibilism that stood in contrast to the dogmatism and authoritarianism of many of the religious moralists of his day. Arguably, his form of that fallibilism was even less reductionistic and scientistic (in the bad sense) than Mill’s, since he also qualified the larger naturalistic backdrop that Mill tended to take for granted. Like some of the religious moralists he opposed, and unlike Mill, Sidgwick recognized the crucial role played by various intuitions in ethics (and other areas of cognitive inquiry). But like Mill and unlike most of the religious moralists, he allowed that even intuitions should be treated as fallible: many “clear and distinct” perceptions have turned out to be wrong. There is no reason why ethics should be immune to such revision when such areas as geometry and physics are not. Thus was he led to the complex epistemological criteria presented in the Methods. Beyond the first, or “Cartesian Criterion,” that the “terms of the proposition must be clear and precise”, there is a second, that the “self-evidence of the proposition must be ascertained by careful reflection”, a third, that the “propositions accepted as self-evident must be mutually con sistent”, and a fourth, that since “it is implied in the very notion of Truth that it is essentially the same for all minds, the denial by another of a proposition that I have affirmed has a tendency to impair my confidence in its validity”. Of the last, Sidgwick adds “if I find any of my judgments, intuitive or inferential, in direct conflict with a judgment of some other mind, there must be error somewhere: and if I have no more reason to suspect error in the other mind than in my own, reflective comparison between the two judgments necessarily reduces me temporarily to a state of neutrality” (Henry Sidgwick, "The Methods of Ethics", 7th ed., with a foreword by John Rawls, Indianapolis-Cambridge, Hackett Publish Company, 1981, pp. 399-342).
In other works, Sidgwick reduced the criteria to three by combining the first two: in essence, certainty upon reflection, coherence, and consensus. Still, when he put his position carefully, he usually qualified this “philosophical intuitionism” by allowing that whatever “certainty” resulted from either the first or all the criteria, the “self-evidence” was only “apparent,” the best safeguard against error, but still open to re-thinking (See especially the epistemological papers by him included in Arthur Sidgwick and Eleonor Mildred Sidgwick, "Henry Sidgwick A Memoir", London and New York, Macmillan & Co., 1906.). And in practice, he often seemed if anything to emphasize the latter criterion, the consensus of experts, to be achieved through free and open discussion. His own philosophical spirit had been set free by his early membership in the Cambridge Apostles, that most famous of secret discussion societies, which had influenced generations of Cambridge students from Tennyson, to Sidgwick, to Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore, to Stephen Toulmin, and down to our own day. Although in later life, when Russell and Moore were among his students, his philosophical spirit tended to droop a bit, as he discovered that discussion groups could be as tedious and pointless as other forms of academic life, he never really abandoned his hopes for the philosophical conversational ideal. Russell and Moore may have found “Old Sidg” a dull lecturer, but for his part Sidgwick thought that academic lectures just were dull, compared to discussion. He once delivered a “Lecture Against Lecturing” (Included in the posthumous Miscellaneus Essays and Addresses, edited by Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick and Arthur Sidgwick, 1904).
Now, despite my paradoxically unSidgwickian position at the moment, I do think it worth continuing to lecture you on the virtues of Sidgwick’s brand of reflexive, critical epistemology. Although he certainly had many failings, as I will presently indicate, he really did succeed in striking an epistemologically agnostic balance that has been very fertile. The younger Russell and Moore may not have expressed much admiration for Sidgwick, but the older Russell and Moore ended up backing off of many of their earlier criticisms. Moreover, in more recent decades, Sidgwick has been in some ways the philosopher’s philosopher’s philosopher, celebrated by such Anglo-American philosophical luminaries as John Rawls, Derek Parfit, William Frankena, Marcus Singer, and R. M. Hare, as well as Singer. For many of these figures, The Methods of Ethics provided both the best (if qualified) account of the classical utilitarian case for the greatest happiness as the normative bottom line, and a model for the comprehensive, historically-informed, critical comparison of the leading approaches to ethical theory that even non-utilitarians could deploy to good effect. Rawls, in A Theory of Justice (John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge Mass, Harvard University Press, 1971), took himself to be following more or less the same method that Sidgwick (and Aristotle) followed. But he thought it led to different results: while allowing that classical utilitarianism as Sidgwick framed it was the theory to beat, Rawls of course claimed that he could beat it with a new and improved version of social contractarianism, the theory of justice as fairness.
Rawls’s claims produced a huge literature and certainly helped along the reception of Sidgwick. Alan Donagan, one of my old teachers, went so far as to write:
Most of Sidgwick’s contemporary rivals, Herbert Spencer and James Martineau, for example, have long been unread. And those who are still referred to – T.H. Green, F.H. Bradley, perhaps Bernard Bosanquet now and then – may safely be neglected by a young philosopher aspiring to contribute to the main current of analytic moral philosophy. Nor need he expend much labor even on Sidgwick’s predecessor and master, John Stuart Mill, or on his pupil and critic, G. E. Moore. Yet he cannot, in the principate of Rawls, omit to address himself to The Methods of Ethics (Alan Donagan, “A New Sidgwick?”, in Ethics 90, 1980, p. 283).
This was in a review of J. B. Schneewind’s now classic work, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (See J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, Clarendon Press, 1977), a book that was deeply influenced by the Rawlsian revolution and the American neo-Kantian revival it represented. But Rawls’s attempted appropriation of Sidgwick also energized his utilitarian opponents. Indeed, many of Rawls’s sharpest utilitarian critics – Hare and Singer, especially – have been in part concerned to repossess the Sidgwickian legacy from Rawls, urging that Rawls misinterpreted Sidgwick’s method and failed to meet the utilitarian challenge. For all of the changes that Rawls’s theory underwent, such as the reinterpretation of it as a form of “political liberalism” rather than a comprehensive moral doctrine, Singer would still damn it on these counts. Yet it is hard to deny that Rawls’s Theory and Sidgwick’s Methods both to a considerable degree sought to get on with ethics as an independent field of critical inquiry, rather than getting caught up in metaphysical or metaethical concerns about the meaning of moral terms, the nature of free will, etc… Both works enter very deeply into the historical ly important opposing theories, and recognize the dialectical process by which “common sense” morality can be critically reworked, from the inside as it were, into theory. Plausibly, this process does have deep Aristotelian roots, just as Sidgwick and Rawls urged.
At this juncture, I cannot resist illustrating the point by quoting from a lovely – and devastating – review my colleague Martha Nussbaum wrote of a book on “Manliness” by the Straussian academic Harvey Mansfield. Nussbaum begins her review as follows:
Suppose a philosophical scholar – let us call this scholar S – with high standards, trained in and fond of the works of Plato and Aristotle, wished to investigate, for a contemporary American audience, the concept of “manliness”, a concept closely related to the one that Plato and Aristotle called andreia, for which the usual English rendering is “courage”… How would this scholar go about it? Well, following the lead of Aristotle, S would probably begin by laying out the various widespread beliefs about the topic, especially those held by reputable people. S would also consider the opinions of well-known philosophers. In setting down all these opinions, S would be careful to get people’s views right and to read their writings carefully, looking not just for assertions but also for the arguments that support them. Inevitably this welter of opinions would contain contradictions – not just between one thinker and another, but also within the utterances of a single thinker. People are amazingly able to live with contradictions, since most people do not stop to sort these matters out in the way that Socrates recommended. People also use terms imprecisely and ambiguously, so S’s inquiry would uncover much fuzziness and equivocation. Nor do most people most of the time, when they make statements of the form “Manliness is X”, pause to tell us whether they mean to say that X is a necessary condition of manliness, or a sufficient condition, or both, or neither. So S would untangling opinions like tangled strands of yarn… Finally S would try to produce an account that seemed to be the best one, preserving the deepest and most basic of the opinions, and discarding those that contradict them. S would then hold this definition out publicly, inviting all comers to try to things out with their own reasoning, and then accept the proposed definition or improve upon it. Being a friend of the Greeks, S would naturally have curiosity about the cross-cultural aspects of this particular topic. It is evident that Athenians of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E. had rather different ideas about manliness from those of modern Americans. A lot of them thought that manliness naturally expressed itself in a preference for young men over women as sexual partners, and that the most manly of the gods, Zeus and Poseidon, enjoyed such lovers. Most Americans, even if they grudgingly grant that men in same-sex relationships are potentially manly, would shrink at the thought that Jesus or Jehovah had any such inclinations. Many Athenians, moreover, and even more Spartans thought that erotic attraction between males was a fine cement for a military combat unit – something that the American military is so far from thinking that it would rather not think anything at all about the topic. So S would investigate these differences, and these would naturally lead S to the copious cross-cultural literature on manliness that by now exists… A scholar with S’s curiosity and love of truth would find in this material rich food for reflection (Martha Nussbaum, “Man Overboard”, The New Republic, June 22, 2006).
This is of course a prelude to a demonstration of how Mansfield’s work does absolutely none of these things and has no claim to being a piece of critical philosophizing, rather than a piece of political propaganda, yet another neoconservative rant against feminism. But what especially struck me about Nussbaum’s account was its clarity, generality, and easy substitution of “Sidgwick” for “S”, as the philosopher in question. Sidgwick often does more or different things in the Methods, but a great deal of what he does do might well be so described – and happily so, given the way in which this suggests the current relevance of his approach. Indeed, another answer to my title question might be: “Because reading Sidgwick will help you understand an enormous amount about just where such hugely influential figures as Rawls and Nussbaum are actually coming from!”. To that we could add: “And it will help you see through lots of the political propagandizing that nowadays often appears under the name of “political philosophy”!”. Nussbaum, for her part, is also an admirer of the Methods (and of Mill), and I very much agree with her claim that classical utilitarianism can be a rich source for the anti-hierarchical critique of domination, though this takes some reconstructive effort.
Like Mill, Sidgwick was also a forceful opponent of the subjection of women. And I very much agree with Nussbaum in thinking that the overly economistic form of utilitarianism that has been so influential in the last century was “but an amputated limb” of the classical tradition345. That verdict obviously does not apply to the work of the more philosophically reflective utilitarians – again, if the work of my co-presenter is any indication (and I think it is a very important indication), much of Sidgwick’s substantive ethical position is in far better shape than the Rawlsians or other neo-Kantians would ever admit. And I confess that I have considerable sympathy for the view that there is something right about hedonism, classical (especially philosophical) utilitarianism, and Sidgwick’s notion that there is a genuine conflict between utilitarian reasons and egoistic reasons. My own hope is to work out eventually a melding of hedonism, the capabilities approach of Nussbaum and Sen, and current account of “Subjective Well-Being” presented in the field of “Happiness Studies”. Perhaps I will get to say a little bit more about that in our later discussions.
But for the remainder of this lecture, I would like to talk a little more about the critical reception of Sidgwick. As exciting and productive as the exchanges between Rawlsians and their critics have been, they have also tended to narrow as well as advance the reception of Sidgwick, and I would like to sketch out a few aspects of Sidgwick’s life and work that have too often been erased. My own work on Sidgwick began life as part of the engagement with Rawls and his critics. But in following the arguments wherever they might lead, I took some quite unexpected turns, and came to think that Sidgwick was a much more complex and many-sided figure than most philosophers realized.
For one thing, it ought to be stressed that on various counts, his application of the above-described approach was actually better than Rawls’s. Rawls was very slow to recognize the importance of questions of gender and sexuality, and in that way was more “Victorian” than such Victorians as Mill and Sidgwick. In fact, in terms of the very topic Nussbaum raises, Sidgwick was a very close friend and supporter of one of the true pioneers in the history of sexuality, John Addington Symonds, whose pamphlet on “A Problem in Greek Ethics” (privately published) discussed the history and cultural and philosophical relevance of Greek sexuality more than a century before this was an acceptable topic in Anglo-American universities (Martha Nussbaum, “Epistemology of the Closet”, The Nation, June 6, 2005.). Although his knowledge of this subject does not figure explicitly in the Methods, Sidgwick’s more abstract discussion of sexual purity, celibacy, etc. do betray considerable sophistication and historical, cross-cultural sensitivity. Rawls was more discomfited than Sidgwick by confrontation with these topics. And today, in addition to the more philosophical debates on hedonism, the best work being done on the paradoxes of “pleasure” is being by scholars in those gender and gay studies departments that the work of Mill and Sidgwick did so much to make possible.
Furthermore, if Sidgwick’s epistemology allowed him to devote the Methods to substantive ethical theory in the ways described, it also gave him a rather finer appreciation for the limits of ethics as an independent area of inquiry, one without disproportionate dependence on some more “foundational” field, such as metaphysics.
It is very intriguing that the Methods makes virtually no mention – except elliptically, in its final pages – of the field in which Sidgwick spent approximately a third of his working life – namely, parapsychology. Sidgwick was one of the founders and the first president (starting in 1882) of the British Society for Psychical Research, and he spent more hours in search of ghosts, communications from the dead, and other paranormal phenomena than most academics today spend on their areas of specialization. For him, this was often a form of natural theology, one of the most promising paths for investigating what might be left of the religious views that had come in for such a beating from the combined forces of the new German hermeneutical criticism of the bible and Darwinism. If the universe had a certain type of moral structure – a benevolent design and afterlife – the potential conflicts between egoism and utilitarianism might be rendered nugatory. The “wages of virtue” would not be “dust”, as he put it, and not quite so much stress would fall on the worldly legislator to effect an artificial harmony of interests, something that the economist Sidgwick recognized was not so easy to achieve. Indeed, it is worth emphasizing here that Sidgwick, unlike many contemporary followers of his utilitarianism, had a very acute, painful sense of the cost of losing justified belief in the Cosmic harmonizing of interests. The “truer” views that were emerging in his day were, he thought, going to be very hard on the human heart, especially the heart of the ordinary person, and the achievement of a “secular” good society, if it could ever be approximated, would involve a longish historical evolution and some fundamental changes in “human nature” as it was then constituted. The world – especially the world at war – just was going to confront humanity with tragic dilemmas and conflicts that it would be utterly facile to expect political and legal institutions to resolve. For Sidgwick, social progress was very slow and very uncertain, though fresh false faiths, from Comteism to idealism to Marxism to neoconservatism, would forever try to suggest otherwise. Clearly, as Sidgwick argued, people really need to get a lot better at finding their “own good” in the “good of all” – a point that Singer, at least, has appreciated, in such works as How Are We To Live? (Peter Singer, How Are We To Live?, New York, Prometheus Books, 1996). One can only think that the lethal combination of crass materialism, fundamentalism, and bigotry that has so marked the century since his death would have fueled Sidgwick’s worst fears and nightmares. And the cogency of his views about the needs of the human heart should surely find support in the extraordinary appetite the public has continued to demonstrate for the weirder forms of occultism, spiritualism, New Ageism, etc… By comparison with current standards, Sidgwick’s brand of parapsychology seems very sober and hard-headed. To be sure, some might think that this side of Sidgwick is even more explosive than his friendship with Symonds. It is now almost painful to think of Sidgwick’s early 20th century admirer C. D. Broad remarking on how whatever we might think of Sidgwick’s work on behalf of women’s higher education, surely all can agree on the value of his work in psychical research. I recall William Frankena once urging me to please consider my career, before writing about Sidgwick and parapsychology. Well, it is too late for that. But at any rate, I have always been persuaded that Sidgwick took more or less the right attitude to the subject – the same attitude he brought to ethics, one of skeptical open-mindedness and antidogmatism. Indeed, if anything, his approach to the subject was overly critical. His friend and collaborator William James complained of him because the “liberal heart which he possessed had to work with an intellect which acted destructively on almost every particular object of belief that was offered to its acceptance” (William James, “The Confidences of a ‘Psychical Researcher’”, in William James: Writings 1902-1910, Library of American, 1987, p. 1250).
James was right to worry about Sidgwick’s effect on the field: he was overwhelmingly critical of the claims brought before him, debunking fraud after fraud, fuzzy thinker after fuzzy thinker. The Theosophical Society has still not forgiven him for undermining the claims of Madame Blavatsky, who claimed to be in communication with various Tibetan spiritual masters. But in thanks he was subject to attack by both orthodox Christians and many scientists, who in their dogmatic reductionistic materialism held a priori that there was nothing in this region to investigate. That has been and continues to be a very problematic attitude. Even those investigators who are very hardened and skeptical, as well as being very informed, have trouble accounting for the entire mass of empirical evidence. As Joe Nickells, one of the best ghostbusters out there, put it: “I’m tired of these debunkers coming by my office and saying, ‘Hey, Nickells, seen any ghosts lately? Har Har’… I’m not saying there’s a fifty-fifty chance that there is a ghost in that haunted house. I think the chances are closer to 99.9 per cent that there isn’t. But let’s go look. We might learn something interesting as hell” (Joe Nickells, cited in Burkhardt Bilger, “Waiting for Ghosts”, The New Yorker, December 23 & 30, 2002, pp. 98-99.).
And it ought to be stressed that in fact there are some sane philosophers around today who essentially agree with the limited results that Sidgwick thought he had achieved and go somewhat beyond him. Thus, philosopher Stephen E. Braude, in his admirable work, Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life after Death, concludes:
For much of the survival evidence, it’s not clear what to say. It’s not clear to what extent it can be explained away in terms of normal or abnormal processes, or even in terms of paranormal processes among the living. And some of the evidence scarcely makes sense even if we accept postmortem survival. These are matters I’ll examine at length in the course of the book. But overall, I’d say that the evidence most strongly supports the view that some aspects of our personality and personal consciousness, some significant chunk of our distinctive psychology, can survive the death of our bodies, at least for a time (Stephen E. Braude, Immortal Remains: The Evidence for Life after Death, Rowman & Littlefield 2003, p. XI.).
Braude is no eccentric – he is chair of the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Maryland, and was shrewd enough to win tenure before openly pursuing his parapsychological interests. And his conclusions are close to those Broad had reached in the first half of the 20th century, before the onslaught of positivists and linguistic philosophers created a desert landscape in Anglo- American philosophy departments and such topics went the way of ethics, political philosophy, history of philosophy, and so on. But Sidgwick was never quite that optimistic. Even at his most optimistic, he would only say that the fresh evidence gave grounds for hope. His widow, Eleanor Mildred Balfour, sister of the Tory politician Arthur Balfour, wrote to a mutual friend who had written a review of her and Arthur Sidgwick’s Henry Sidgwick A Memoir:“I am glad you dwell on the optimism. Some have said that the life gives them a sad impression. Of course there was an element of disappointment that he had not been able to find the truth he sought, but his life was certainly a happy and a hopeful one in spite of occasional depression” (Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, op. cit., p. 689).
The “truth he sought” was evidence of personal survival of death. Well, if sex and survival play important roles in Sidgwick’s larger critical perspective – that perspective that has been largely erased by the recent history of philosophy but that nonetheless makes him an all the more interesting read – there is another timely matter that ranks with them: empire. The arc of Sidgwick’s life coincided with that of British imperialism, the period when imperialism was really coming into its own and being framed in philosophical terms. Much of my own most recent work (Bart Schultz, Utilitarianism and Empire, co-edited with Georgios Varouxakis, Lanham Md, Lexington, 2004.) has been concerned to tease out arguments that I began in Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe about the ways in which certain forms of imperialist and racist thinking can be traced even in Sidgwick’s skeptical, agnostic, and abstract writings. He was more skeptical of the imperialist enterprise and its racist underpinnings than a great many of his friends, family members, and colleagues, which included such figures as Balfour, Henry Sumner Maine, James Bryce, Charles Henry Pearson, and John Seeley, the author of some of the leading texts of the new imperialism. But even so, on this count his vaunted critical faculties too often failed him. Cosmopolitan as he was, Sidgwick envisioned the growth of international law occurring through the “Concert of Europe”, and he was quite open about how his countrymen might have to “commit acts which cannot but be regarded as aggressive by the savage nations whom it is, their business to educate and absorb” (Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on Green, Spencer and Martineau, edited by E. E. Constance Jones, 1902, p. 190). And like many of our current leaders, he harbored all too few doubts about there being plenty of savage nations out there to educate and absorb. He even worried that vigilance would be needed to keep any eye out for racial intermarriage possibly leading to “debasement” of the superior race. Such evidence had, he allowed, not yet been produced, but he feared that it might be.
To be sure, on many of these counts, Aristotle, Mill, Marx and Rawls failed as badly as Sidgwick and might well have done worse, if confronted with his context. But for all that, it is hard to deny that another important reason to read Sidgwick is to come to appreciate how even the most penetrating ethical philosopher can be compromised, politically, and how insidious and pervasive the forms of racism can be. It is truly depressing just how slow Anglo-American academic philosophers have been to recognize what crucial philosophical problems there are in this area, quite failing for the most part to theorize the ongoing racism and sexism of the academy or academic philosophy. Until quite recently, it was too much even to so much as mention how, say, Kant’s racism might affect the interpretation of his moral philosophy.
Feminist philosopher Margaret Urban Walker is surely right to underscore Sidgwick’s candor and attentiveness in dealing with a question no longer often raised:
For whom are the labors of moral philosophers and the accounts that these labors produce? What are moral philosophers imagining as the social realization of the views they propose and defend? If moral philosophy answers a need or has a use, whose need is this and where is moral philosophy used? If moral philosophers aim to represent a capacity, whose capacity is it, or whose could it be? To what and to whose ends and interests is this moral capacity to be exercised? I admire Sidgwick’s accountability on these matters, his assumptions of the responsibility to speak to such questions, even as his answers repel. (Margaret Urban Walker, Moral Understandings, New York, Routledge, 1998, p. 45)
For Walker, the Methods is little more than “a carefully reasoned operator’s manual for the scientific utilitarian ethics in the hands of an elite”. Still, like Bernard Williams in his critique of Hare or Singer, she allows that Sidgwick’s form of indirect or two-level utilitarianism was at least more straightforward (in imperialist fashion) about just who is supposed to be capable of doing the utilitarian calculations and who would be relegated to the role of being absorbed and civilized. But of course Sidgwick’s straightforwardness was not all that straightforward, since he was writing for a very limited, very elite group of readers and was allowedly quite protective of social stability. At any rate, it is worth stressing that there is nothing particularly moralistic, or Whiggish, or anachronistic about criticism of this form, any more than there is in Edward Said’s readings of Joseph Conrad and Jane Austen or Nussbaum’s readings of Mill or for that matter Sissela Bok’s readings of King Leopold’s African genocide. Certainly, in Sidgwick’s context, imperialism and racism were live and debated issues – witness Mill versus Carlyle. It is much more suspect, morally and politically, to pretend – and it is mere pretense – that no such concerns are philosophically serious or somehow worthy of attention, being ,too wanting in “charity in interpretation” or attention to historical context. That was precisely the type of thinking that led to so many whitewashing attempts to ignore Mill’s problematic, imperialistic take on India and the many other ways in which his better anti-hierarchical thinking was compromised. It is the type of thinking that leads neoconservatives like Mansfield to talk about Greek conceptions of manliness in even more censored fashion than Sidgwick’s friend Benjamin Jowett did, when he translated Plato and left out the naughty bits (Jowett was at least chastened by Symonds for this). It marks, not accurate history, but the failure to use history to good purpose, to provoke tough, uncomfortable thoughts about our own limited and partial understandings. The problems of empire and racism have not gone away; they still cry out for opposition and explanation. And if one really wants to come to terms with Sidgwick’s approach, reading him critically as well as adoringly, one just does need to know how he actually used, in practice as well as theory, notions like the “consensus of experts”, or “educated” opinion, or “civilized” society, or “savage races” and so on. How else can one know when and why one is following Sidgwick and when and why one is reconstructing or rejecting him? Oddly enough, or not so oddly, given my earlier remarks about Sidgwick’s virtues, I think that Sidgwick would have been the first to agree – and that is an excellent reason to read Sidgwick today.
Published with the author's consent
©2008-2009 Hortense Geninet