Henry Sidgwick

1838 - 1900
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Henry Sidgwick

Sidgwick was born in 1838 to a wealthy family in Yorkshire, England. He studied at Cambridge as an undergraduate, where he stayed for the rest of his life. While he is best known as a moral philosopher, he was also a political economist, epistemologist, classicist, theologist, educator, political theorist and parapsychologist (studying psychic phenomena, including telepathy and survival after death).1 At Cambridge, Sidgwick became a part of “the Apostles”: a secret society whose members discussed topics including ethics, truth and God. He married Eleanor Mildred Balfour, a scientist with whom he advocated to expand higher education for women and conducted parapsychological research.

Sidgwick is best known for writing The Methods of Ethics, an overview of utilitarianism and its historical alternatives, and their relation to ordinary moral reasoning. According to John Rawls, Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics “is the clearest and most accessible formulation of (…) ‘the classical utilitarian doctrine’”,2 and, according to J. J. C. Smart it is “the best book ever written on ethics”.3 Not only was this a valuable formulation and justification of classical utilitarianism, it also proved to be a model for the study of ethics more generally. The book can be seen partly as an exposition, systematization and correction of commonsense morality. In it, Sidgwick outlined three approaches to ethics: intuitionism, egoism and utilitarianism, and attempted to reconcile them with each other. While he doubted that egoism and utilitarianism could be reconciled (in what he termed the “dualism of practical reason”), he argued that fundamental utilitarian axioms and intuitionism could be. This insight proved vital in the popularization of utilitarianism in the 20th century.

Sidgwick was also a committed social reformer. His primary interest was the expansion of women’s higher education, and he founded Newnham College, Cambridge, for this purpose. He supported the secularization of education, and (temporarily) resigned from his fellowship at Cambridge University in 1869 when he could no longer subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. He also supported poor relief, and, as a political economist, challenged the doctrine of laissez-faire.4

How to Cite This Page

Hampton, L. (2023). Henry Sidgwick. In R.Y. Chappell, D. Meissner, and W. MacAskill (eds.), An Introduction to Utilitarianism https://www.utilitarianism.net/utilitarian-thinker/henry-sidgwick, accessed .

Want to learn more about utilitarianism?

Read about the theory behind utilitarianism:

Introduction to Utilitarianism

Learn how to use utilitarianism to improve the world:

Acting on Utilitarianism

Representative Works of Henry Sidgwick

Resources on Henry Sidgwick’s Life and Work

Prominent Quotes of Henry Sidgwick

  1. Schultz, B. (2019). Henry Sidgwick. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, E. N. (ed.). ↩︎

  2. Sidgwick, H. (1981). Methods of Ethics. 7th edn., Hackett Publishing Co. ↩︎

  3. Smart, J. J. C. (1956). Extreme and Restricted Utilitarianism. The Philosophical Quarterly. 6(25): 344–354., p. 347. ↩︎

  4. Schultz, B. (2019). Henry Sidgwick. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Zalta, E. N. (ed.). ↩︎

  5. The Methods of Ethics, 1884, p. 186 ↩︎

  6. The Methods of Ethics, 1884, p. 201 ↩︎

  7. The Methods of Ethics, 1884, p. 182 ↩︎