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Henry Sidgwick on Utilitarianism - Dictionary of Arguments

Gaus I 413
Utilitarianism/Sidgwick/Weinstein: Sidgwick's 'classical' utilitarianism was (...) a form of liberal utilitarianism in so far as Sidgwick held, like Mill, that utility was best promoted indirectly via intermediary moral principles. Hence, Rawls's attack on 'classical' utilitarianism is warfare against a straw man. For Sidgwick, the 'middle axioms' of common sense morality generally constituted appropriate happiness-maximizing guides and therefore needed modest critical refinement. Sidgwick nevertheless held, like Mill, that 'as this actual moral order is admittedly imperfect, it will be the Utilitarian's duty to aid in improving it' (1981(1): 476). >Sidgwick/Political Philosophy.
For Sidgwick as well as Rawls, common sense tames radical reform. The utilitarian Reformer, will naturally contemplate (established morality) with reverence and wonder, as a marvelous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth . he will handle it with respectful delicacy as a mechanism, constructed of the fluid element of opinions and dispositions, by the indispensable aid of which the actual quantum of human happiness is continually being produced.‘ (1981(1): 475).
Sidgwick's indirect utilitarianism also resembled Spencer's liberal utilitarianism despite Sidgwick's
protestations to the contrary (see Weinstein, 2000)(2).
Spencer: Spencer agreed with Sidgwick that established morality was the 'marvelous product of nature, the result of long centuries of growth' with modern liberal societies converging on the same array of utility- promoting moral rules. And he agreed with Mill, though not Sidgwick, that we have reformulated our most fundamental moral rules as stringent rights. >Utilitarianism/Spencer.


1. Sidgwick, Henry (1981 [1907]) The Methods of Ethics. Indianapolis: Hackett.
2. Weinstein, D. (2000) 'Deductive hedonism and the anxiety of influence'. Utilitas, 12: 329—46.


Weinstein, David 2004. „English Political Theory in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Century“. In: Gaus, Gerald F. & Kukathas, Chandran 2004. Handbook of Political Theory. SAGE Publications


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Explanation of symbols: Roman numerals indicate the source, arabic numerals indicate the page number. The corresponding books are indicated on the right hand side. ((s)…): Comment by the sender of the contribution. Translations: Dictionary of Arguments
The note [Author1]Vs[Author2] or [Author]Vs[term] is an addition from the Dictionary of Arguments. If a German edition is specified, the page numbers refer to this edition.

Sidgwick I
Henry Sidgwick
Methods of Ethics 2017

Gaus I
Gerald F. Gaus
Chandran Kukathas
Handbook of Political Theory London 2004


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