Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy

Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy

Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy

Sidgwick's Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy

Synopsis

Henry Sidgwick's The Methods of Ethics challenges comparison, as no other work in moral philosophy, with Aristotle's Ethics in the depth of its understanding of practical rationality, and in its architectural coherence it rivals the work of Kant. In this historical, rather than critical study, Professor Schneewind shows how Sidgwick's arguments and conclusions represent rational developments of the work of Sidgwick's predecessors, and brings out the nature and structure of the reasoning underlying his position.

Excerpt

Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics is an acknowledged masterpiece of moral philosophy. It is also the most important product of nineteenth-century British ethics and the main key to a full understanding of it. When I first began to study it, I found that there were no historical studies of it at all, and only one reasonably comprehensive recent philosophical discussion. This book is the result of my efforts to find answers to questions about the Methods which the existing literature did not supply. My main aims are philosophical. I try to show how Sidgwick's arguments and conclusions represent rational developments of the work of his predecessors, and to bring out the nature and structure of the reasoning underlying his own position. But although the book is mainly concerned with philosophical argument, it is a historical rather than a critical study. This is not because Sidgwick's work is of merely historical interest or because I can find nothing in the work to criticize. It is because it seemed necessary, before criticizing Sidgwick, to have a sound historical grasp of the problems he was trying to solve as well as a clear understanding of the solutions he offered.

Chapter 1 of this book traces Sidgwick's intellectual development, and Chapters 2 through 5 sketch the history of British ethics from the time of Reid and Bentham to the time when the Methods was being elaborated. While I believe that this historical material sheds considerable light on Sidgwick's thought, I know that the details will not interest everyone. Hence I have tried to make the commentary on the Methods which occupies Part II relatively independent of the earlier chapters. I have not tried to give a thorough critique of Sidgwick. To do so would require developing a comprehensive alternative to his own position; and even if I had one, there would not be room to present it here.

The interpretation of the Methods to which I have been led differs in many respects from that which seems to prevail in the literature. in particular, I find running through it a far . . .

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