This is a guide to chapters 1 and 5 of Book 4 of Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics. The references are to pages in the version I distributed to my class.
Sidgwick uses a number of terms that either have special definitions or are not as common now as they were when he was writing. For the most part, I have put such words in parentheses and quotes after using an equivalent term that is more familiar. However, there are some for which that method does not work. So here is a quick glossary of those.
Sidgwick’s definition of “utilitarianism,” also known as “Universal Hedonism.”
“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 affected by the conduct.”
The rest of the section is devoted to distinguishing utilitarianism from other ideas.
Some of these details are questions that could be answered differently by different branches of utilitarianism.
The first paragraph sets out the problem that Sidgwick means to address. He says he has shown that the everyday moral code that most people live by (“the morality of Common Sense” or the “Positive Morality”) is “roughly and generally but not precisely or completely adapted” to produce the utilitarian’s goal of the greatest overall happiness. While the morality of common sense is imperfect from the utilitarian’s perspective, it cannot realistically be replaced. At best, the moral code that people live by can be brought into line with utilitarianism only very gradually. So the question the utilitarian has to answer is: “by what method he will ascertain the particular modifications of positive morality which it would be practically expedient to attempt to introduce.”
Here is the utilitarian’s way of thinking about this kind of question.
“The consideration of this question, therefore, from a utilitarian point of view, resolves itself into a comparison between the total amounts of pleasure and pain that may be expected to result respectively from maintaining any given rule as at present established, and from endeavouring to introduce that which is proposed in its stead.”
Sidgwick makes some critical remarks about Mill’s On Liberty. These are pertinent because Mill’s proposal that individuals should be left free to engage in conduct that only concerns themselves is a candidate to be a utilitarian modification of common sense morality. (This will become more clear when we read Mill next week.)
Some acts are thought to be morally mandatory, others are thought to be good but not required. In this section, Sidgwick will talk about the former: cases where utilitarianism diverges from commonly accepted moral rules. Suppose a utilitarian decides that a different rule would better promote the general happiness than the commonly accepted one does. What should the utilitarian do?
Sidgwick distinguishes between negative utilitarian moral innovations that conflict with common sense rules and positive innovations that supplement the common sense rules without conflicting with them.
Concerning negative innovations:
Concerning positive innovations: most of what utilitarians will do is urge greater respect for the parts of common sense morality that rely on extensive sympathy with others. Roughly, Sidgwick thinks we don’t treat strangers as well as we should, by the standards of either common sense morality or utilitarianism. (pp. 15-16).
In this section, Sidgwick discusses what many people believe is the most important problem with the relationship between utilitarianism and common sense morality. Utilitarians believe that the common sense rules against harming or deceiving others are generally but not always valid since these rules generally, but not always, promote the general welfare. So, it seems, utilitarians will act immorally by the standards of common sense morality.
Utilitarians will recommend some exceptions for everyone. E.g. allowing people to lie about how they voted on a secret ballot. (pp. 16-17) Other exceptions will be quite rare. E.g. supporting a revolution. (p. 17)
The hardest cases involve utilitarians making an exception for themselves: they violate the common sense moral rules but do not think that others should do so. (Remember: the relevant violations are not motivated by self-interest but rather because they promote the general welfare.) (pp. 17-22)
“Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. Or if this concealment be difficult to maintain, it may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few. And thus a Utilitarian may reasonably desire, on Utilitarian principles, that some of his conclusions should be rejected by mankind generally; or even that the vulgar should keep aloof from his system as a whole, in so far as the inevitable indefiniteness and complexity of its calculations render it likely to lead to bad results in their hands.” (p. 21)
We commonly think that there are some acts that are good even though they are not strictly required. We also evaluate people’s character as good or bad, apart from any specific acts that they do or don’t do: you can be a good person, for instance, even if you occasionally tell a lie.
Utilitarianism doesn’t have much use for these distinctions. It’s concerned with what we should do and has a straightforward requirement: for all possible actions, you must do the one that has the best consequences.
That said, there is a utilitarian rationale for continuing to single out people who are unusually good for praise: doing so encourages more good behavior.
As with moral duties, the common sense evaluations of character are largely, but imperfectly, utilitarian. Still, there is little risk of harm here, as the standards are so loose that utilitarian innovations are unlikely to be seen as great departures.