Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Sidgwick, Henry (1838-1900)
From Encyclopedia of Political Theory

Henry Sidgwick was a Victorian-era British philosopher, political economist, parapsychologist, and educational reformer who played a seminal role in both the academic organization of Cambridge University and the growth of modern academic ethical and political theory, particularly utilitarian ethical and political theory. He has been widely credited with enhancing the professionalism of academic higher education and with opening up educational opportunities for women. He has also been widely credited with providing the philosophy of classical utilitarianism—the ethical and political philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, James Mill, and John Stuart Mill, which made the normative bottom line the greatest happiness of the greatest number—with a sophisticated, comprehensive, and academically satisfying statement, especially in his major work, The Methods of Ethics (1974). Highly influential political philosophers of recent decades, notably John Rawls and Peter Singer, have, for all their disagreements, agreed on taking Sidgwick's classic work as a touchstone for their own projects, which can often be helpfully classified by how they either continue or oppose the positions set out in Sidgwick's Methods.

Foundational Questions

Sidgwick was clearly a brilliant, skeptical, and ethically scrupulous individual, and these traits are evident in his major works and many essays and reviews. He had a markedly successful education at Rugby and Trinity College in Cambridge, where he excelled in both classics and mathematics, joined the famous discussion society known as the “Apostles” and early on became a Fellow and Lecturer, though his career trajectory suffered a certain temporary inconvenience when he resigned his Fellowship in protest over the requirement that he take an oath accepting the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. By the early 1860s, he had grown profoundly skeptical of the orthodox Christianity that he had imbibed from his first mentor (and brother-in-law), E. W. Benson, who would become Archbishop of Canterbury. Cambridge University devised ways to harbor Sidgwick while he harbored his doubts, and in due course, as the times caught up with him, he was made Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Still, Sidgwick's religious skepticism would prove to be painful to him in the extreme, and most of his deepest intellectual and scholarly commitments were at least in part attempts to address such skepticism and the future decline in religious culture that it suggested.

Thus, the Methods, although cast as an impartial, dispassionate, scholarly inquiry into the comparative merits of the leading ethical approaches, or “methods,” by which people reason about how they ought to act (common-sense or intuitional morality, egoism, and utilitarianism), was also, to Sidgwick's mind, an important effort to discover compelling secular rational grounds for morality, acceptable to reason independently of religious orientation. Deeply impressed with the successes of science from Isaac Newton to Charles Darwin, Sidgwick hoped that philosophical inquiry might adopt something more akin to the scientific outlook, with a greater commitment to impartial search, as opposed to the promulgation of standing moral and religious positions—something that he rightly regarded as hampering the growth of philosophy as an academic discipline. But he also hoped that such impartial inquiry would produce some compelling results, foundations to replace the crumbling religious ones. In this he was disappointed.

It is in fact one of the great paradoxes of Sidgwick's Methods that, although he personally identified himself as a utilitarian, and although the description of utilitarianism in Book 4 of that work is commonly taken as the best statement of the position ever, Sidgwick did not think or claim that he had succeeded in providing his favored view with the needed epistemological or rational defense. To his satisfaction, his impartial inquiry had demonstrated how the utilitarian position could absorb and explain the precepts of common-sense or intuitional morality: such familiar prohibitions as “don't steal,” “don't lie,” and “don't murder” obviously have great utilitarian value. The way to realize the greatest happiness in society would often be indirect, with the bulk of the people in most circumstances deploying decision procedures involving the common-sense precepts, rather than trying to calculate the consequences in each case for the greatest happiness. The more fundamental utilitarian principle was needed for—and its deeper justification made evident by—problem cases or dilemmas involving conflicts between such precepts, conflicts that, to Sidgwick's mind, pointed to how most people are unconscious utilitarians, ready to adopt that principle at the more fundamental level. But, to his consternation, he could not persuade himself that any of his arguments could defeat the rational egoist. After all, why is it always and only rational to promote, directly or indirectly, the greatest happiness of all, instead of one's own greatest happiness? Why take “the point of view of the Universe,” in which one is just one source of value in addition to all the others with equal claim?

The Methods is a work that details the most basic principles or candidate axioms for all of these seemingly rival views with remarkable care. Unlike Bentham or the Mills, Sidgwick adopted the epistemology of utilitarianism's common-sense or intuitional rivals, seeking to find the key axioms embedded in each “method” that, by virtue of being clear and distinct, coherent with other justified axioms, and capable of producing consensus among rational inquirers, might make a plausible claim to self-evidence, or at least apparent self-evidence. Sidgwick's epistemological intuitionism is somewhat unusual in finding a place for the type of fallibilism more characteristic of empiricist approaches, allowing that even claims to self-evident truth for an ethical axiom needed to be regarded as tentative and subject to revision. His complex and original views on moral epistemology have proved to be fertile ground for conflicting interpretations of his work, with some commentators playing up the foundationalism of his rational intuitionism and others, notably John Rawls and J. B. Schneewind, emphasizing the similarity to a search for “reflective equilibrium,” an ongoing critical effort to balance general principles and particular cases in a satisfactory way.

However, many other sides of the Methods have also yielded rich harvests of controversy. Sidgwick's detailed account of utilitarianism provided most of the material for future philosophical debates over the meaning and viability of any such view, articulating such key topics as total versus average utility (made conspicuous by the problem of calculating the happiness of future generations and optimal population growth), direct versus indirect approaches (or the utility of acts versus rules versus decision procedures versus attitudes, etc.), and hedonistic versus nonhedonistic value theory. Like Jeremy Bentham, Sidgwick favored a form of hedonism as the best interpretation of the “good” or “welfare,” arguing that the best account of ultimate value, the thing utilitarianism should be maximizing, is pleasure or pleasurable/desirable states of consciousness. But unlike Bentham, Sidgwick recognized the force of the criticisms of hedonism coming from ideal or “objective” accounts of the good or welfare, from views such as those of his friend T. H. Green, an early British idealist deeply influenced by German philosophy from Immanuel Kant to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. If Sidgwick was doubtful about how secure the foundations of utilitarianism in general were, with its call to maximize good, he was even more doubtful about how secure the foundations of its value theory were, with its claim that the good was pleasure. And, again unlike Bentham, these doubts were heightened by an acute awareness of the falsity of psychological egoism, or the view that people just did, as a matter of fact, seek to maximize their own pleasure, and of the inadequacies of either invisible or visible hand mechanisms, the market or government, for happily reconciling the conflicts between individual and general happiness. One could say that Sidgwick succeeded in laying bare the fundamental and inescapable normative conflict between pursuing one's own happiness and pursuing the happiness of all, and the confusions swirling around the whole notion of happiness or ultimate value in the first place. He was not happy with his achievement.


Sidgwick dealt with his most fundamental ethical and religious doubts in a rich array of ingenious ways. He hoped to use the forces of science against science itself, or at least against the more materialistic, antireligious side of science that became prominent in the Darwinian era. Thus, believing that there were grounds for thinking that scientific methods of inquiry might vindicate the reality of telepathy and personal survival of bodily death, he devoted an extraordinary amount of time and energy to parapsychology, or “psychical research,” in due course becoming a cofounder and founding president of the British Society for Psychical Research. But, despite endless hours spent investigating claims about ghosts, premonitions, and other paranormal phenomena, his skeptical intellect ended up concluding, after many ups and downs, that the evidence was not yet there and that this possible route for reconciling the individual and collective good in the happy hereafter was not as promising as he had at first thought. But historically speaking, it can justifiably be said that whatever intellectual respectability parapsychology has ever had is in significant measure due to Sidgwick and his wife, Eleanor Mildred Balfour (the sister of the future prime minister, Arthur Balfour).

Educational Reform

The Sidgwicks, especially as a couple, were rather more successful with efforts at educational reform. Although Henry did a great deal on his own to improve the Cambridge curriculum, reorganize its structure, and professionalize the academic/ professorial role, his crowning achievement as a reformer was the result of his collaboration with his wife in the cause of higher education for women. Continuing the work of one of their great heroes, John Stuart Mill, in challenging the “subjection of women,” the Sidgwicks ultimately succeeded in becoming cofounders of Newnham College Cambridge, one of the earliest institutions of higher education for women in England. They devoted time, energy, and their own funds and resources to this institution, which continues to flourish today. With Sidgwick, however, educational reform, like parapsychology, was always done with an eye on the deepest problems that troubled him. Education, after all, might afford another vehicle for independently supporting the ethical life in the future, when the influence of religion declined. Like their friend, George Eliot, the Sidgwicks sought to make the cultivated forms of happiness marking the ethical life attractive in their own right. Significantly, Newnham College was built without a chapel.

Politics and Economics

Sidgwick's secular educational reformism, if not his parapsychology, linked him to his classical utilitarian predecessors, who were also ardent reformers. Moreover, like Bentham and the Mills, but unlike his own students Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore, Sidgwick was an ethical and political theorist who was also a first-rate political economist and political scientist, with Alfred Marshall a cofounder of the Cambridge School of Economics. His other major works, which have always been overshadowed by the Methods, were The Principles of Political Economy (1883) and The Elements of Politics (1891), though he also published a concise little primer on the Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers (1886) and a collection of essays on Practical Ethics (1898), featuring some of his contributions to the ethical culture movement. He also published many essays and reviews, and a number of his works appeared posthumously.

Given his foundational doubts about the meaning and defense of utilitarianism, combined with his own personal commitment to that view, it is perhaps not surprising that the normative side of the Principles and the Elements does not address such matters but rather simply assumes the utilitarian position from the start. Sidgwick's aim in these works, especially the Elements, is mainly to spell out the implications of the utilitarian view for the evaluation and design of political and economic institutions. He does not seriously address these issues from the perspective of the committed rational egoist, though he is keenly aware of the conflicts between individual and general happiness and sharply critical of overly sanguine attempts to ignore the potential for such conflict, even in the best of institutional arrangements. After all, no market society or any other has ever contrived to eliminate, for example, the need for individual sacrifice in time of war. Welfare economics, in the form given it by Edgeworth and Pigou, was very much a reflection of Sidgwick's influence.

Both works in fact share a certain intellectual structure, taking the principle of laissez-faire or free market/individual liberty as an intermediate principle needing a utilitarian defense. But the defense invariably ends up qualifying this form of antipaternalistic individual liberty in a host of ways. Sidgwick appears to have been intimately familiar with the many (now familiar) forms of market failure, from monopoly and oligopoly to negative externalities to collective action problems. But he was also articulate on the deeper failures of such programs—their failure to recognize their limited applicability to educational and socialization processes or other cases where individuals are scarcely in a position to recognize or pursue their good, their failure to protect vulnerable populations like children, animals, or future generations, and their failure to appreciate the attractions of “ethical socialism,” which would have one motivated to work out of a concern to do one's bit for the common good, as part of a cooperative enterprise. He took a high-minded approach to the educative functions of liberal democratic society, thinking that the state could helpfully promote morality via certain educational programs.

Although Sidgwick, in his major works, invariably took great care to distinguish his normative from his descriptive claims, he also made it abundantly clear that the “facts” about human nature and society did not, contrary to ideologues of both left and right, go very far to limit the options for humanity, especially in the future. He was highly skeptical of the generalizations being promoted by the new discipline of sociology, which was spawning wildly ambitious accounts of the laws of human evolution and history. He did think, however, that there was some evidence for a continuing evolution toward greater federation and parliamentary or constitutional democracy, and strongly favored the growth of a cosmopolitan international morality with appropriate standards and institutions for reducing the risk of war. For Sidgwick, utilitarianism meant opposition to Machiavellianism in any form, whether in personal relations or international relations. If he worried intensely about a future bereft of religious comfort and motivation, he also labored assiduously to shape human nature in a way that would maximize the potential for happiness under such circumstances. The leading champions of utilitarianism today continue to invoke his example in defense of everything from animal liberation to economic redistribution to global justice to justice for future generations.

Sidgwick's economic and political work has been subject to widely varying interpretations. He has been called a conservative or Tory elitist, an early part of the progressive media that produced pragmatism, an architect of British imperialism, a champion of classical liberalism, a critic of classical liberalism who helped usher in the welfare state, and more. But the diversity of interpretation surely reflects the complexity of argument. Sidgwick was the type of philosopher and intellectual whose critical intellect was so insistent on seeing all possible sides of every argument that his heart scarcely ever had the opportunity to override his head.

See also

Bentham, Jeremy, British Idealism, Liberalism, Mill, John Stuart, Rawls, John

Further Readings
  • Schneewind, J. B. (1977). Sidgwick's ethics and Victorian moral philosophy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.
  • Schultz, B. (2004). Henry Sidgwick, eye of the universe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidgwick, A. S., & Sidgwick, E. M. S. (1906). Henry Sidgwick: A memoir. London: Macmillan.
  • Schultz, Bart
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Articles

    Full text Article Sidgwick, Henry (1838 - 1900)
    The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English

    Born at Skipton in Yorkshire, he was educated at Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow, A leading...

    Full text Article Sidgwick, Henry (1838 - 1900)
    The Macmillan Encyclopedia

    Sidgwick's major academic work, The Methods of Ethics (1874), was a comparative study of moral philosophy, which focused on ...

    Full text Article Utilitarianism
    The Social Science Jargon-Buster

    Core definition The belief that morally right actions are those that produce the greatest good or greatest happiness for the greatest number...

    See more from Credo