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Epistemology of the Closet | The Nation

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Epistemology of the Closet

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When most people think of Utilitarianism today, they are likely to think of the idea, central to much modern economic thought, that people are by nature maximizers of the satisfaction of their own interests. In its economic form, with the accent on natural selfishness, Utilitarianism looks like a cynical creed that denies the possibility of genuine altruism. If social good for all or most people is to be achieved, it will be because somehow or other the selfish decisions of many people combine to produce it. Such Utilitarian ideas, however, are but an amputated limb of the radical philosophy that once went by that name. For the three great British Utilitarians--Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)--the proper social goal was the greatest happiness of the greatest number, a calculus in which, in Bentham's famous slogan, "Each [is] to count for one, and none for more than one." Far from being a complacent egoistic philosophy, Utilitarianism was radical in both its methods (counting all people equally) and its results, which often urged sweeping change in existing social structures.

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Martha Nussbaum
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Nor were Utilitarians political conservatives, as their modern descendants in economics tend to be. On the contrary, in line with their philosophical convictions, they supported an end to religious establishments, the equality of women, a demanding globalism and, in the case of Mill and Bentham, a dedication to animal rights (since "each" included all sentient beings). Arrested at the age of 18 for distributing contraceptive literature among the poor of London, Mill went on to introduce a motion for women's suffrage as a member of Parliament. Bentham issued the first Western philosophical defense of animal rights since Greco-Roman antiquity, and Mill left much of his estate to the SPCA. Both, as atheists, were unable to hold an academic appointment, which at that time required swearing belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Even more radically, Bentham condemned laws against same-sex relations, commenting, "It is wonderful that nobody has ever yet fancied it to be sinful to scratch where it itches, and that it has never been determined that the only natural way of scratching is with such or such a finger and that it is unnatural to scratch with any other."

Henry Sidgwick is usually regarded as the tame Victorian among these radicals, the person who domesticated Utilitarianism and made it both academically and socially respectable, in the process smoothing its rough edges. This facile story runs up against some inconvenient facts, such as Sidgwick's resignation of his Cambridge fellowship when he decided that he could not support the Thirty-Nine Articles (he resumed it again only when the rules were changed), and his key role, with his wife, Eleanor, in founding Newnham College, the first women's college to be located right in the heart of Cambridge, not (like Girton) at a safe distance from the centers of power. Despite these signs of radical commitment, however, Sidgwick's reputation for tameness has persisted, an impression reinforced by the dry, dense and academic style of his great work, The Methods of Ethics. Both of these factors combine to make Sidgwick of little interest to the general public, at a time when Mill, especially, is enjoying a renewed popularity, helped in no small measure by the eloquence and insight of his famous Autobiography.

Professional philosophers, by contrast, admire Sidgwick, even when they differ sharply with him. Both John Rawls and Bernard Williams, for example, have focused very respectfully on Sidgwick in their critiques of Utilitarian thought, and Rawls praised Sidgwick as one of the most impressive of historical figures for his rigor and complexity. But most philosophers, too, would have thought that Sidgwick, unlike Mill, could not possibly have written anything that showed deep emotion or human insight, much less anything that issued a radical challenge to Victorian sensibilities.

Bart Schultz's mammoth biography shows that we would have been entirely wrong. Schultz, a lecturer at the University of Chicago, argues that Sidgwick was not just a very distinguished academic thinker but also an authentic social radical, if a conflicted one. He tried hard to be a proper Victorian, but he failed in two big ways, losing faith in God and owning up (though not publicly) to forbidden desires for sex with men. The exploration of these themes and related ones (Sidgwick's feminism, his radical views about education and his somewhat more conventional attitudes about race and empire) make this book not only a superb biography but also an invaluable contribution to the history of Victorian England. And because, in addition to these virtues, it is written with a high degree of philosophical understanding and a good deal of sophisticated philosophical discussion, it is the best biography of a philosopher to appear in many years, and perhaps the best ever produced about a British thinker.

Schultz's book is very long, and even longer than it seems, because it is full of lengthy quotations from letters and diaries set in smaller type than the text. But it should not have been shorter, because he has uncovered so much previously unknown source material that is not likely to be assembled again. The reader who doesn't want to read every bit should still be happy it is all there, ready to be mined whenever one wants. And the volume is intelligently arranged. Straight biographical narration occupies its beginning and end, but the middle chapters are thematically organized: one long one on the central philosophical ideas, one on Sidgwick's investigations into the paranormal, one on sexuality and one on race and ethnicity.

Unlike Bentham and Mill, Sidgwick wanted badly to believe in conventional religion, but it took him many years to figure out that he could not do so. Nor did he give up the ghost, so to speak, when he decided that ordinary Anglican piety was not and could not be rationally well grounded. Instead, he tried to prove the existence of a life after death scientifically, co-founding the Society for Psychical Research and devoting a great part of his later life to experiments that tested the claims of mediums, clairvoyants and hypnotists. Bentham and Mill would have mocked these doings because they cared little about heaven in the first place. (Mill once said that our interest in it would be likely to drop away as civilization progressed--although he could not let go of the hope of being reunited with his beloved Harriet.) But the fact that Sidgwick still felt that conventional religious ideas were crucial to solving the conflict between egoism and altruism should not conceal from us, Schultz argues, the highly unconventional means he used to recast them. To the reader who finds all the ghost stuff ridiculous, Schultz points out that at the time many utterly serious people believed it, and that at least some of it (hypnotism) turned out not to be ridiculous. How would we know, without testing? Moreover, Sidgwick's attitude was invariably skeptical and scientific. For that reason he was never satisfied that his hope for communication from beyond the grave had been realized--although some members of the Society firmly believed that he had succeeded in communicating with them after his death.

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