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  • 5/31/2004
Henry Sidgwick
( 5/31/1838- 8/29/1900)

August 28, 2000 will mark the hundreth anniversary of the death of Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge philosopher and educational reformer who authoredThe Methods of Ethics (1874). Rivalling Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill as an architect of the classical utilitarian doctrine that the ultimate normative standard in ethics and politics ought to be the greatest happiness, Sidgwick was also a guiding spirit in the causes of women's higher education and parapsychology, a founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and the Society for Psychical Research.

Unfortunately, on the centenary of his death, Sidgwick's life and work are still studied in a highly misleading way. J.B. Schneewind's famousSidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy (1977) mainly demonstrated how Sidgwick'sMethodsreflected not only an advance in utilitarianism, but also a sensitive engagement with and appropriation of the leading mid-Victorian alternatives, such as the ethics and epistemology of William Whewell (1794-1866), the Cambridge philosopher who insisted on the crucial role of fundamental,a priori intuitions in both morality and science. Sidgwick came to think that intuitions had to be invoked as the rational ground of fundamental principles. Moreover, he went beyond Mill in arguing that many of the common-sense moral rules that the intuitionists sought to refine and defend - for example, that promises ought to be kept - could be defended as by and large conducing to the greatest happiness, at least for the ordinary purposes of ordinary people.

But when it comes to questions of sexuality and gender, race and imperialism, and the bearing these may have on Sidgwick's ethics, previous scholarship is useless. True, in 'The Point of View of the Universe' (1982), Bernard Williams wittily labelled Sidgwick's view 'Government House' utilitarianism, because it might justify a form of paternalistic, esoteric morality agreeable to colonial administrators. But Williams framed the issue only in abstract terms, with no reference to Sidgwick's actual political contexts. And even attempts to situate Sidgwick within the broader framework of cosmopolitan, pragmatist progressivism, such as James Kloppenberg'sUn certain Victory (1986), have wholly failed to address the most troubling aspects of his legacy.

Sidgwick himself was nervous about his views. Often cited as one of those Victorians whose religious doubts did not undermine their ethical rectitude, he actually worried endlessly that without a defensible, theistic conception of the moral order of the world, philosophical ethics ended up in a conflict - a 'dualism of practical reason' - between the utilitarian view that reason dictates promoting the general happiness and the egoistic view that it dictates promoting one's own happiness. This concern motivated both his parapsychological investigations into the possibility that the human personality might somehow survive physical death - which would provide some evidence for theism - and his determined refusal to promulgate the sceptical arguments that led to his religious and ethical agnosticism, since such conclusions were not, he thought, likely to contribute to human happiness and could well imperil social order.

Still, agnosticism and egoism were not the only subjects on which Sidgwick was less than forthcoming, and his psychical research was not the only matter his philosophical reception avoided. Sidgwick was very much a part of the intimate circle of John Addington Symonds (1840-93), the controversial poet, literary critic, and cultural historian, who became a pioneer of gay studies. Symonds's candid explorations of the nature of homosexual identity - such as his collaboration with Havelock Ellis on the book Sexual Inversion (1897), or his remarkable, long unpublished Memoirs, detailing his struggles with his own tendencies, which he thought inherent - set the agenda for twentieth century debates over nature v. nurture in questions of sexual identity.

Sidgwick's support for Symonds was admirable. This cannot be said of his support for such figures as Sir John Seeley (1834-94) and Charles Henry Pearson (1830-94). Seeley promoted one of the most influential legitimating philosophies of British imperialism. HisThe Expansion of England (1883), stressing England's civilizing, cultural mission in the world, was a prime text for the new, liberal imperialists of the 1880s. Sidgwick's political theory drew heavily on the views of his Cambridge colleague, and he edited and introduced Seeley's posthumousIntroduction to Political Science (1896).

Pearson had been brought to Cambridge by Sidgwick in the late 1860s, to lecture in history, and he went on to become a leading figure in Australian politics and educational administration. HisNational Life and Character (1893) was praised by Sidgwick as the 'most impressive book of a prophetic nature which has appeared in England in many years.' What Sidgwick did not do, amidst his criticisms of the book's method, was distance himself from Pearson's racist thesis that 'our science, our civilisation, our great and real advance in the practice of government are only bringing us nearer to the day when the lower races will predominate in the world, when the higher races will lose their noblest elements, when we shall ask nothing from the day but to live, nor from the future but that we may not deteriorate.' (p. 343). Pearson fanned Australian fears about the 'Yellow Peril.'

Sidgwick's publications never descended into such crude prejudice, but on the other side, they never plainly disclaimed it. HisElements of Politics (1891) only managed a guarded, evasive agnosticism when it came to the subject of 'debasement of the race' and the claims for segregative measures. Consequently, it would appear that Sidgwick's agnostic silences had a more sinister turn than his philosophical admirers have heretofore been willing to admit.

Taken from:

http://episteme:links@www.philosophers.co.uk/archive/sidgwick_snapshot.htm Also see:


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