This page contains a detailed summary of Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics (1884, 3rd edition). For the second book, see The Methods of Ethics (book 2), which is based on the 7th edition. As the content is expanded, the structure of this page might change—this page might become a brief description of the work with links to each of the four books in the volume.
Book I Edit
Chapter 1 Edit
§1 Ethics is the study of what ought to be in a given situation as opposed to the study of what is (p. 1). Politics is the study of what societies should do. Sidgwick calls it a study rather than a science. Psychology includes the study of pleasures and pains and desires, and Sociology is similar but on a larger scale (both studies of what is), but the study of what ought to be is closely related to the study of what is.
§2 Ethics is sometimes considered the study of moral laws (Good, or Bonum of behavior or the goal (Ultimate Good, or Summum Bonum of human action. Sidgwick says that ethics is limited to the study of the type of good that humans can produce (p. 3). Viewing ethics as a study of ways to attain an Ultimate Good seems to be different than the study of right and wrong behavior. The two views seem to fit only if Right conduct is the ultimate goal itself, but this seems to be inconsistent with Christian thought or the idea that the Good should include attainment of happiness (p. 3).
Sidgwick said that he will avoid the term Art of Conduct (referring to moral action) because it seems to represent systematic knowledge "of the right means to a given end" (p. 4). If people knew the Right action in each situation (exclusively) via intuition , then there would not be much basis for systemetizing that knowledge. His final version is that ethics is "the science or study of what ought to be, so far as this depends upon the voluntary action of individual" (p. 4).
§3 Sidgwick noted that our actions sometimes violate our beliefs of right and wrong (p. 5). Sidgwick asked "Why should I do what I see to be right?" (p. 5) and "we are moved to action not by moral judgment alone, but also by desires and inclinations that operate independently of moral judgment," (p. 5). "I hold that men, in so far as they attempt to make their conduct rational, do so, naturally and habitually, upon different principles and by different methods" (p. 6). Because rational people cannot hold conflicting beliefs, there must be "but one rational method of Ethics" (p. 6), but there is more than one "natural method" (p. 6).
§4 Kant mentioned hypothetical imperatives that assume certain ends, and many times people will suggest what somebody should do without stating the ends. A doctor's advice assumes the patient wants good health more than sloth. Many rules of morality assume that a man regards his own Happiness as an ultimate end (p. 7). Butler said that people ought to pursue their own happiness, but Sidgwick noted that this view implies that "happiness now appears as an end unconditionally prescribed by reason" (p. 7).
In response to the Utilitarian view, Sidgwick suggested that the word ought applies to encouraging people to behave in the interests of the public but that it seems inapplicable to people behaving in their own interests because they are compelled to do so by "psychological law" (p. 8).
Methods of ethics will follow the goals of behavior and ethical thought (p. 8). Sidgwick is not aware of anybody who claims that pursuit of fame is an end in itself, but he sees two possible goals of behavior: happiness and excellence (where excellence is also called perfection. These are the only ends that appear to be rational. Excellence might refer to well-being or welfare (p. 9). The path of happiness can mean happiness for the self or happiness for all.
The path of excellence corresponds to virtue ethics and "consist mainly in the complete observance of certain absolute rules of Duty, intuitively known" (p. 10). Perfection can also be aimed at the self or all, but helping others attain perfection is often done only as a means of advancing one's own perfection (p. 10). The two paths are now referred to as seeking perfection of the community and perfection of the individual. The two pursuits of happiness are egoistic hedonism and universalist hedonism. Universalistic hedonism follows Bentham's theories.
§5 Sidgwick declared that he will define several methods of ethics (p. 11). The methods that he describes are what he considers to be natural methods. We all have some of the impulses and principles of each of the methods. Sidgwick quoted a line from Aristotle that "the end of our study is not knowledge, but conduct" (p. 11). Before selecting a method of ethics, we might want to be familiar with each of these methods (p. 13).
Chapter 2: The Relation of Ethics to Politics Edit
§1 When considering what will become law, first identify what is wrong or bad and then take a subset of that to be law (p. 15). Egoism does not assist in identifying what should be law. Assume (for this first discussion) that laws should be based on utilitarian principles (p. 16). Some general principles that would be supported by utilitarians:
- do not harm or gratuitously annoy people "except in self-defense or retaliation" (p. 17);
- do no interfere with somebody's wealth or inheritance;
- do fulfill agreements unless doing so causes harm to others; and
- support your children when young and parents when they are old.
Some things are advantageous only when the rules are enforced on others, like prohibiting retaliation. Utilitarian ethics blends with utilitarian politics (p. 18). Sidgwick will not discuss the gray line between the rules that should be enforced legally versus through informal social sanction. Relative to this point, he did mention that "it is dangerous in legislation to advance beyond Positive Morality, by prohibiting actions (or inactions) that are generally approved or tolerated)" (p. 18).
He treated utilitarianism first because it seems to be most accepted in politics, although there is also much talk about rights (p. 19). Some say that there are natural rights and that these are the only obligations that we have to each other. The theory of natural rights often accompanies monarchies and hereditary right of rule.
Those who oppose utilitarianism tend to support both perfection (deontological or virtue ethics). In this view, duty as an individual corresponds to duty to society.
§2 Some say that ethics depends on politics by focusing first on what ought to be done in society. Sidgwick said that it didn't sound right to say that duty to for the "right state of social relations" (p. 22) could describe all morality, but it might be a starting point.
Goals are often contemplated with the assumption that conditions will be as they are now, so we must know how our conditions will change in the future. Laws for permanent marriage cause some unhappiness, but people support such laws for the benefit of children. Some say that free love is the ultimate goal but others say that permanent "conjugal affection is natural and normal" (p. 23; meaning that people will work toward different goals for lack of knowledge of what conditions are possible in the future).
Chapter 3: Reason and FeelingEdit
§1 We tend to think that wrong conduct is irrational and that part of persuasion on these issues requires reason. Moral philosophers use this approach while preachers can use other approaches. Despite the role of reason, we are often motivated by nonrational desires that can oppose our reason (p. 25-26). These desires can be influenced by the intellect by either learning about new means to a given end or by learning new facts (typically about consequences of actions; p. 26).
Ideas about oughts are fundamentally different from ideas about empirical facts (p. 27). When trying to explain ought from judgments and reasons, people might discuss the feelings that "accompany moral or prudential judgments" (p. 27), but these feelings are not "interpretations of such judgments" (p. 27). He is referring to moral and prudential judgments as separate categories. Tradition says that moral obligation must stem from self-interest and that moral rules are prudential—this makes them different from other types of cognitions. Some say that moral judgments are just expressions of emotion (p. 28).
Sidgwick gave a hypothetical example in which he liked a given behavior but recognized that others disapproved of it, so he abandoned that behavior. He still liked that behavior but no longer considered that a moral sentiment (p. 28; thereby showing the difference between a moral sentiment and a regular desire or preference). Our moral judgments reflect the preferences of other humans (p. 29).
If we can show that an argument leads to the acceptance of a moral principle that the individual opposes and that society opposes, then we would have good evidence of moral sentiments (p. 29).
§2 Another view of moral sentiment is that it represents an aversion to certain behaviors and desire for it to be punished (p. 30; note that you might think that a behavior is wrong AND that it should be punished, but this section is more about those whose primary focus is on the desire for punishment). Many times we argue for a distinction between moral obligation and legal obligation (implying that the two things are different). We can also do things that resemble moral judgments: doing something to conform to public opinion. Moral codes of this type often reflect morals, but unreflective people do not distinguish between real morality and public opinion (p. 31). This situation has some resemblance to those who act via fear of divine retribution (p. 32).
§3 The notion of ought seems to reflect more than just emotion or penalties. The idea of ought is too elemental to define, but we might be able to explain it by describing its relations to other ideas (p. 33). Sidgwick thinks this topic is not within the field of ethics and that it is unanalysable.
Proper judgments are objective, meaning that all rational people should arrive at the same judgment (p. 34). He explicitly does not claim that proper judgments must derive from universal principles versus intuitions (p. 34). He observed "that the moral faculty deals primarily with individual cases, applying directly to these the general notion of duty, and deciding intuitively what ought to be done by this person in these particular circumstances" (p. 34), but also noted that if this process relies on a sense perception that people will tend to disagree, so he prefers the term reason. He referred to intuitive reason as that which reveals universal truths such as" the axioms of Logic and Mathematics" (p. 34; note that this definition of intuition differs from the typical use of the word today).
An ought gives a motive for action (p. 35).
§4 In reviewing the motivating force of moral obligation, Sidgwick noted that he does "not know how to impart the notion of moral obligation to any one who is entirely devoid of it" (p. 35). In other words; some people simply do not feel moral obligation that others deem necessary.
Even if we deny that the goals of action are prescribed by reason, the idea of ought remains because reasons is needed to find efficient means to whatever end has been selected (p. 37). These remaining problems can be considered hypothetical imperatives (per Kant).
Chapter 4: Pleasure and Desire Edit
§1 The chapter begins by addressing the emotions that "prompts us to obey the dictates of Reason" (p. 39). These emotions can vary between individuals or even within a single individual. Sidgwick now describes a few emotions that people might have and how they correlate with cognitions that something is right. For those who think that a reason for acting a certain way is outside the self, cognition of rightness corresponds to respect for authority (which can also apply to a divine being). For those who associate reason and the self, that respect for authority becomes self-respect. Emotions of aspiration or admiration are related to a virtue ethic. All those emotions are "inseparable from an apparent cognition... of rightness in the conduct to which they prompt" (p. 40).
Some suppose that egoistic hedonism would lead to conflicts with reason, but Sidgwick says that is mistaken and assumes that people to do not include considerations of rightness in their view of pleasure (p. 40). The exceptions are people with deficiencies who indulge in immediate pleasure when they know it is unhealthful.
If we know that our actual behavior is shaped by pleasure and pain, it seems reasonable to respond in proportion to the degree of pleasure or pain (p. 42). This idea contradicts virtue ethics in which people do certain things regardless of the consequences.
§2 Some definitions: "pleasure is a kind of feeling which stimulates the will to actions tending to sustain or produce it" (p. 42), and "pain is a kind of feeling which stimulates as to actions tending o remove or avert it" (p. 42; note that these definitions relate pleasure and pain to the selection of behavior by definition thereby preempting claims that other sensations motivate behavior). Butler had a contrary definition and suggested that an appetite or desire "enjoys the object" (e.g., hunger enjoys food) so we could not pursue pleasure unless we had a desire for something other than pleasure (p. 44; in other words, he might be saying that there are intermediary steps during which we are not satisfying pleasures and that if were not unwilling to forgo immediate pleasure we would be unable to "pursue pleasure"—this relies on the view that moments of apparent boredom or labor should not be considered as part of a long-term pursuit of pleasure).
Sometimes people play sports to enjoy the struggle of the contest as opposed to anticipation of winning. Sometimes people engage in scientific study for the sake of the occupation of time. It is during these processes that the desire for an end develops (p. 46). The paradox of Hedonism occurs when people are so absorbed in their own (immediate) pleasure that they fail to "catch the full spirit of the chase" (p. 47). The "pleasures of benevolence seem to require... the pre-existence of a desire to do good" (p. 48), but Hutcheson says that we can cultivate these affections.
§3 The conflict between self-regarding and other-regarding impulses are not paradoxes but expected. Many of our impulses lead us to ends other than our own happiness. Sidgwick seems to be countering arguments made by Bentham: Sidgwick says that sometimes people who make substantial sacrifices (as in religious asceticism or pursuit of fame) there really is a sacrifice as oppose to an exchange between short-term and long-term goals. People might act on principle (the "pearl of great price") without expecting reward (p. 50).
§4 Sidgwick tried to address some arguments that might weaken the utilitarian idea of pleasure as it drive behavior. The first argument is that reason is unconsciously directed toward pleasure (note: it is unclear how this detracts from earlier theories). The second argument is that even though infants are driven by pleasures and pains, adults are also driven by "association of ideas" meaning that we associate things with the pleasures even though they might not be pleasurable in themselves (p. 52). At this point Sidgwick mentions that he says that adults are driven by both pleasure and by other things including pursuit of virtue that can conflict with desire for pleasure.
Chapter 5: Free Will Edit
§1 Sidgwick begins by noting the complexity of the free will debate and by mentioning his prior comments about impulses to do things that are not in our best interests. "Rational action, as I conceive it, remains rational, however complete may be the triumph of Determinism" (p. 55). It appears that Sidwick takes a compatiblist stance here.
Sidwick presented some descriptions of freedom: one is Kant's idea that people act according to reason, but Sidgwick said that people use free choice to act rationally. He also said that people can use free will to commit sin. He then asked if wilful wrongdoers choose their behavior or does it stem from antecedents (p. 56).
§2 Voluntary action is a prerequisite for ethical behavior. It is conscious (p. 56). Judgments of right and wrong are affected by perceived volition and intention. An impulsive act might contain intention but not volition.
Sidgwick's focus on the free will controversy is this question:
Is the self to which I refer [as] my deliberate volitions a self of strictly determinate moral qualities, a definite character partly inherited, partly formed by my past actions and feelings, and by any physical influences that it may have unconsciously received; so that my voluntary action, for good or for evil, is at any moment completely caused by the determinate qualities of this character, together with my circumstances, or the external influences acting on me at the moment—including under this latter term my present bodily conditions? or is there always a possibility of my choosing to act in the manner that I now judge to be reasonable and right, whatever my previous actions and experiences may have been? (p. 59)
Evidence for determinism is very strong (p. 60).
§3 There is only one argument that opposes determinism: "the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the moment of deliberate action" (p. 64). Absence of motivation to do the right thing cannot be counted as rational reason for not doing it (Sidgwick is saying that in the moment in which we face an ethical dilemma, thinking of our free will can help enable us to make the right choice despite a history of consistently making the wrong choice).
§4 It is useful to know how far free will extends. Some say that free will is evidenced by action and therefore by muscle contractions. Some focus on nerve impulses (p. 66). Controlling our physical actions can sometimes influence our emotional state, but this effect is small (p. 67). A stronger effect comes from concentrating on immediate experience thereby letting other thought fad into the background. This can "initiate a train of ideas" (p. 67) and reasoning.
§5 Sidgwick repeats what he has said previously in this chapter: it is not very important for people to decide what type of free agents they are (p. 70), but it might affect how we think about justice. Punishment might be effective as a preventative measure (to prevent the person from causing more harm) but if it is intended to be retributive (and thereby scare would-be criminals so that they do not commit crime), then it would not be useful if behavior is not subject to free will.
Chapter 6: Ethical Principles and Methods Edit
§1 The chapter begins with a review "The aim of Ethics is to render scientific i.e. true, and as far as possible systematic—the apparent cognitions that most men have of the rightness or reasonableness of conduct, whether the conduct be considered as right in itself, or as the means to some end conceived as ultimately reasonable" (p. 71). The review mentioned that happiness, perfection, and duty are the only plausible reasons (ultimate reasons) for action (p. 72). Others also include God's will is the strongest reason for acting (he previously applied this to the perfection category). Revelation or reason might be the means by which people learn God's will (p. 73). If divine reason is used, it is beyond the scope of science, and if reason is used it leads to one of the other methods that he has described. Some say that we are designed to know God's will and that we can obtain it by "examining our own constitutions" (p. 74). Sidgwick does not see self-examination as a special category—it is just another method (that anybody can use).
§2 In the next chapter, Sidgwick will "distinguish different interpretations of the term 'Egoism' which I have taken to denote one of the three principal species of the ethical method" (p. 74). This identifies the three methods that he mentions in section 3 of this chapter. Can we observe life and infer what is natural and can this be a criteria for ethical behavior? There is debate of whether we are looking for the most common attributes of humans or the original attributes (p. 75). Sidgwick said that he cannot see how an examination of impulses and dispositions can solve practical (ethical) problems. "On the whole, it appears to me that no definition that has ever been offered of the Natural exhibits this notion as r<eally capable of furnishing an independent ethical first principle" (p. 76).
§3 When comparing ethical systems, it seems that "any method may be connected with almost any ultimate reason" (p. 76). He referred to his "threefold division of methods" (referenced in section 2 of this chapter). This section might be discussion methods that are not described until the next chapter.
Chapter 7: Egoism and Self-LoveEdit
§1 Sidgwick will elaborate on two types of egoism that can serve a bases for an ethical system.
Egoism is also called self-love. Hobbes's doctrine is egoistic but not hedonistic but was intended to serve as a basis for social order. Sidwick said that pure egoistic hedonism cannot serve that function (p. 83).
The more rational egoism comes from a sense of self-preservation (p. 85). Butler noted that many acts of pleasure seeking overlapped with the goal of self-preservation, but Sidwick considers these as two distinct goals. Egoism includes a variety of impulses of different types including both sensual and moral. §2 The goal of pleasure for the self is associated with the method of egoistic hedonism (p. 88). The pleasure can come from any source according to each person's preference, and to emphasize this, Sidgwick quotes Bentham: "quantity of pleasure being equal, push-pin is as good as poetry" (cited by Sidgwick p. 88). Our preference for more versus less pleasure implies conversion between qualitative value and quantitative value. Sidgwick summarized the method of egoism can be split into egoistic hedonism, which is a type of intuitionism, and pure, or quantitative egoistic hedonism, which is what Sidgwick will assume as the main type of egoism later in the book (p. 90).
Chapter 8: Intuitionism Edit
Sidwick will refine his definition of intuitionism. He started the chapter with this: "I have used the term `Intuitional' to denote the view of ethics which regards as the practically ultimate end of moral actions their conformity to certain rules of Duty unconditionally prescribed" (p. 91). Note that Sidwick uses intuition here to refer to the method through which people discover or otherwise come to know the principles that define duty. This view implies that people do not make moral decisions based on consequences---just on principles of duty.
It can be difficult to draw a line between acts and consequences without tracing a chain of action to the end of time, but we typically find a way to make the distinction (p. 91--92).
§2 The distinction between intuitive and inductive morality is misleading. Some duty-based moralists claim that rightness is independent of good consequences but in fact are influenced by their induction (which leads toward happiness; p. 93).
A system based on inference from empirical observation might lead people to observe instances of justice and to derive a general rule from them (p. 94). In contrast, casuistry "consists in the application of general rules to particular cases" (p. 94). Some believe that moral decision-making from conscience bypasses the creation of general rules and instead decides moral issues based on knowledge of particulars alone (note that this is similar to Dancy's  idea of no moral principles). Sidgwick calls this view ultraintuitional (p. 95).
§3 We all have some thoughts consistent with ultraintuitionalism, but few of us are satisfied with this as a system of ethics. We find that system inadequate because we notice that our own intuitions vary across time and that intuitions vary between people (p. 95).
Christians use a different method. They want to abide by law but in difficult cases they might not know what that law is. In those cases they consult external sources (including priests and sacred books) so the method is not strictly intuitional (p. 96). They also rely on common consent about what the rules are. This leads to the second Intuitional Method, which is that "general rules are implicit in the moral reasoning of ordinary men" (p. 96), while difficult question require "special cultivation" (i.e., only priests or prophets can answer the most difficult questions).
Philosophers often reject morality of common sense (p. 97) while relying on it sometimes. This leads to the third intuitional method: using common sense intuition generally but seeking an independent philosophic basis that offers a better explanation.
§4 The three types (Sidgwick calls them phases) of intuitionism can be called "Perceptional, Dogmatic, and Philosophical" (p. 97; note that these terms will be important throughout the remainder of the book). Most people use some combination or confused combination of these three methods (p. 98). The distinction between intuitionism of common sense and philosophic approaches is a major division in the study of ethics (p. 98).
Materialists tried to explain morality as "the conditions of peaceful existence which enlightened self-interest directed each individual to obey" (p. 99), which requires a strong government. This view "renders the theoretical basis of duty seriously unstable" (p. 99). Cumberland sought a deeper basis to this materialism and considered the ultimate goal to be "the common good of all Rational" (cited by Sidgwick; p. 99). Wollaston's attempt at scientific morality failed.
Chapter 9: GoodEdit
§1 The previous chapter said that right, according to the intuitional view, "prescribes actions unconditionally" (p. 101). This chapter depicts actions with varying degrees of attractiveness as opposed to declaring them to be either right or wrong. For this, the term good is used. There are two schools of thought about good: the virture approach and the pleasure approach (p. 103).
§2 Sidgwick does not associate good with things that simply facilitate some other end. We associate pleasure with good (p. 104). "The perception of goodness or virtue in actions would seem to be analgous to teh perception of beauty in material things" (p. 104), but we find that aesthetics does not correspond to usefulness. When we say that somebody has good taste, good does not have the same meaning. This closer to a meaning of "contemplative satisfaction" (p. 106), which is related to the "pleasurable emotion which commonly accompanies it" (p. 106).
§3 People do not agree about what is desirable or good (p. 107).
§4 At first, there seems to be many things that are intrinsically valuable (p. 109). Things are good only if they produce happiness or contributed to "the Perfection or Excellence of human existance" (p. 110), which is the path of virtue. Although many utilitarians consider the pleasure of animals, "no one seems to contend that we ought to aim at perfecting them, except as a means to our ends, or at least as objects of scientific of aesthetic contemplation for us" (p. 111). If we look at beings above humans (gods), it seems impious to suggest that our actions can improve their condition.