Epistemology of the Closet | The Nation


Epistemology of the Closet

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Were Schultz's book only a record of these aspects of Sidgwick's life and conduct, it would already be an estimable volume of history. But of course Sidgwick is worthy of our attention because he is a first-rate philosopher, and much of Schultz's volume is taken up with a close reading of his great book. The Methods of Ethics is an important work in part because of its systematic ambition and rigorous argumentation. Unlike Bentham, who was simply not a very good arguer, and unlike the much greater Mill, whose journalistic style often frustrates the philosophical reader by leaving essential matters to be filled in on one's own, Sidgwick lays out Utilitarianism with great philosophical detail, showing with close argumentation why it seems to be preferable to the two other prominent approaches to ethics in Sidgwick's time, ethical egoism and "intuitionism," the common-sense-based morality made famous by the anti-Utilitarian William Whewell. (The absence of the Kantian alternative is striking; it led Rawls to suggest that his own Kant-inspired political theory might be seen as the next chapter in Sidgwick's opus.) Tracing his method to Aristotle, Sidgwick purports to go through the view of "the many" and "the wise," and to show that Utilitarianism preserves the "appearances" of reputable ethical thought better than its alternatives.

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Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Chicago, is the author of numerous books, most...

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Utilitarianism can be usefully characterized (following an analysis proposed by Bernard Williams and Amartya Sen) as involving three ideas. First, consequentialism: The right choice is the one that produces the best overall consequences. Second, sum-ranking: The way we aggregate the satisfactions of different persons into a social whole is simply by adding them all up (rather than, say, by focusing on getting the worst-off person as high up as possible, or by insisting on some constraints on how unequal people can be allowed to be). Third, some substantive view of what the good for a person is, such as pleasure, or the satisfaction of desire. Sidgwick, like Bentham, opts for pleasure, though he is much more sensitive than Bentham to the difficulties involved in comparing different pleasures of the same person and the even greater difficulty involved in comparing the pleasures of different people.

Utilitarians typically commend the choice of pleasure as the goal by pointing to the alleged ubiquity of the pursuit of pleasure (not the best and surely not the only way to justify a central ethical value, one might have thought). They then encounter a difficulty: If what each person pursues, and should pursue (according to them), is maximal personal pleasure, how are we going to defend the view that the right goal for society is the greatest happiness of the greatest number? And how, having defended the view, are we going to convince people that it is that goal, rather than the egoistic goal, that they should pursue, since for many people pursuing overall happiness will involve personal sacrifice? Mill had a lot of difficulty with the philosophical argument, and he needed ultimately to depart from strict Utilitarianism in order to solve it to the extent that he did; but he was optimistic about the social process, believing that civic education could produce people who really did think of the happiness of others as an integral part of their own happiness. Sidgwick was hung up on this problem all his life; he called it the "dualism of practical reason,"

and in the end he believed that he had failed to solve it--unless life after death should turn out to produce a coincidence between personal happiness and service to others. But he made much more headway than his predecessors on the philosophical side of the issue, with his probing work on ethical methodology and his defense of a perspective of impartiality ("the point of view of the Universe") as the right place from which to make ethical judgments. (Schultz rightly notes that Sidgwick owes a considerable debt to Kant, although it is scarcely acknowledged, and to the Kantian idea that one must not favor one's own case but rather must test one's own actions by thinking about how they would look as universal features of the world.)

Non-philosophers will want to read this material slowly over time. One part of it they should not miss, however, is Schultz's lucid account of Sidgwick's defense of "indirect Utilitarianism" and of the central role of an elite who will run society for its own overall good. Sidgwick was far less democratic than Mill. He retained from his youthful days in the Apostles (the secret Cambridge intellectual society that gave birth to the Bloomsbury Group, as well as, later, to notorious traitors and spies) a strong elitism about morality, holding that only a select few could be trusted to know the true principles of Utilitarian ethics, and that the rest of the people would be better off believing in ordinary morality, with its notions of virtue and vice. This two-level Utilitarianism has seemed to some to solve some of its thorniest philosophical problems; to others it is an index of its moral bankruptcy. Schultz's rich discussion lets the reader decide.

Sidgwick spent his life on one of philosophy's most difficult problems, which is also one of the most difficult problems of personal and political life: How can we be happy while at the same time pursuing fairness? If he himself did not solve it, he contributed more than all but a few to our understanding of its dimensions and our sense of where to look for its solution. How odd that his widow and friends became so obsessed with his putative communications from beyond the grave, when he had already achieved this far worthier, and genuine, immortality, in a life marked, as we now know, by painful struggle and a strange combination of radical openness and fearful self-concealment.

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