Henry Sidgwick's Practical Ethics: A Defense

Anthony Skelton, University of Toronto

Winner, 2003 essay contest

Henry Sidgwick’s The Methods of Ethics is widely regarded as a philosophical masterpiece. His other works, however, have a dubious reputation. Remarking on the latter, J. B. Schneewind wrote: ‘although interesting for the light they throw on his moral philosophy, [they are] too slight, too occasional, or too little original to be of independent significance.’ This is not true of all of them. Sidgwick’s Practical Ethics offers a novel way of dealing with practical moral issues, and therefore its reputation is undeserved.

In this short note, I will defend Sidgwick’s approach against Sissela Bok’s recent objections. In the first section, I argue that her diagnosis of the view’s alleged difficulties is flawed. In the second, I emphasize elements of the view that help to defend it, noting some affinities it has with those of the later Rawls. In a brief conclusion, I indicate how it promises to alleviate some difficulties facing modern practical ethics.

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