THEISM AND SANCTIONS
I was first introduced to Henry Sidgwick forty years ago when I invited R. M. Hare to hold a series of lessons, which were later summarised, on his already famous book, The Language of Morals (R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, Oxford University Press 1952, Italian trans. by M. Borioni, Roma, 1963; see also, Placido Bucolo, “R. M. Hare, un sistema arbitrario?”, Siculorum Gymnasium, Catania, 1973.), at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Catania. On going to England, as I have done every year, I tried to link up this moral thread (which from Hare led to Sidgwick) to the political thread, encouraged by the enthusiasm of Vilfredo Pareto, my inspiration in that period, for English Democracy. I went to the London School of Economics to meet Morris Ginsberg and then wrote a book on his On Justice in Society which had just been published (M. Ginsberg, On Justice in Society, New York, 1965; see also, Placido Bucolo, Alla ricerca dell’eguaglianza, una filosofia della società: Morris Ginsberg, Scuola Salesiana del Libro, Catania, 1968.). Through this, I “met” his maestro L. T. Hobhouse and his work, Morals in Evolution, I appreciated his effort in trying to find a compromise between Evolutionism and moral values, and this led me to write a book on him (L. T. Hobhouse, Morals in Evolution: a Study in Comparative Ethics, London, 1906, 7ª ed., with an introduction by Morris Ginsberg, London, 1951; see also, Placido Bucolo, “L. T. Hobhouse, O dell’evoluzione della morale”, Siculorum Gymnasium, Catania, 1984). Through the link between his studies on Moral Philosophy and Political Philosophy and his connecting Liberalism with Socialism through a profound religious experience (he, too, was the son of an Anglican deacon), I came into contact with A. C. Pigou, with his theory of Ethical Ends in Economy and his distinction between Economic Welfare and Human Welfare linked to the concept of Social, Marginal, Net Product. Continuing along this line of research, I understood that he had been preceded by Alfred Marshall in the teaching of Political Economy at King's College, Cambridge, from whom many think that the Cambridge School of Welfare Economics originated. It took its name through being supported by the humanitarian action of sympathizing government leaders and because it refused the neutrality of economic science regarding social welfare, opposing those who supported the automatic equilibrium of welfare economy through laissez-faire. By strongly opposing laissez-faire, it excluded that mere economy was able to coincide personal well-being with social well-being.
At the end of this study, I realized that the paternity of this debate could be traced back to Henry Sidgwick, considered the “maestro” of the above authors and their line of thought. I also realized that, in spite of his numerous works on economy, politics and sociology, the fundamental part of his thought was devoted to Morals and that the fundamental part of Morals was devoted to Theism; it was the hypothesis of Theism that, in opposition to the Politics of Strife of Homo Homini Lupus, regulated social life rationally. I also understood that, in Economy, besides “wealth maximizing results”, he also aimed at extra economic considerations. For Sidgwick, those who made these extra economic considerations were moral people who should be at the head of moral, voluntary groups, including the Church, the Institutions and the State.
Henry Sidgwick has been my passion now for many years, owing to the variety of his interests, the humility of his answers and the universality of his conclusions, especially regarding Theism, which certainly influence both Hobhouse and Hare and which for me represent, even today, a way of re-proposing religious faith in a modern form in order to fight against the immoral instinct of disintegration in spite of the so-called Globalization.
Presenting Sidgwick to an Italian public, today, even if I have already written a volume on him, and to a vaster English-speaking public, is not easy. In fact, the former knows very little about him, while, apart from a moment of forgetfulness or distraction, the latter knows that Sidgwick is a milestone in the history of Moral Thought and Liberal Thought. For Italian scholars, one runs the risk of saying too much and confusing them and too little for English-speaking scholars, as they will hear phrases which for them are obvious and repeated. However , in this work of synthesis, I want, above all, to take into consideration the expressions used about him by many of the thinkers who have studied him in the past to underline his value as a cosmopolitan and universal philosopher linked to his unifying concept of Theism.
W. R. Sorley, C. D. Broad, A. MacIntyre, B. Blanshard, G. Eliot, W. C. Havard, W. P. Montague, J. Rawls, D. Parfit, R. Crisp, M. G. Singer and many others have shown great and unreserved admiration for Henry Sidgwick’s work using sentences like: “pure white light”, “the clearest and most accessible formulation of… the classical utilitarian doctrine”, “bright whiteness”, “exceptional insight as well as great historical knowledge”, with “no equal… in ethical literature”, “the greatest on ethics ever written”, but this doesn’t mean that he is well understood. In all the numerous facts of his multi-form ingenuity. His is a vast work whose main aim is “to explore impartially the various methods in ethics. Even if we often think of him as a utilitarian, we realize that he is a utilitarian with an intuitionist basis. In fact the axioms of prudence (i. e. egoism), justice and rational benevolence are “intuitively self-evident axioms”. These intuitions must be put to the test, that means that they must be “clear and precise”, “ascertained by careful reflection”, “mutually consistent” and “receiving approximate consensus” on the part of competent judges. The debate resulting from these quotations has been widespread for more than a century and Sidgwick has been interpreted in various ways, mainly because of his aim in «attaining truth by working through opposing views» (Marcus G. Singer, edited by, “Introduction” to Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Method, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 2000, p. XXXIV). Through this he is famous for his dialectics and his flexibility – a sort of internal Democracy where everything, including Intuitionism, Tradition, common sense and method, is debated. This internal debate is an example of what should be the external debate, i. e. Democracy and Social Justice. Henry Sidgwick is like an architect by definition and an engineer for his ability to build bridges between distant landscapes, visions and feelings. So his Utilitarianism, where he introduces the concept of unity, harmony and systematic coherence «had more in common», as Marcus
G. Singer says, «with his idealistic rivals – Green and Bradley – than as hitherto been recognised» (Marcus G. Singer, “Introduction” to Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Method, p. XXXVII.). Hastings Rashdall called his view “ideal utilitarianism” (Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1907, pp. 49-72.). This comment was made exactly a century ago but what about today?
Bart Schultz says it is important to know how to read and «why to read Sidgwick today». Certainly he is important because in our era of materialistic globalization he knew and consequently, taught that man does not “live by bread alone” (Henry Sidgwick, Letter to H. G. Dakyns, January 1866, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, Macmillan & Co., London and New York 1906, p. 141.), and because Sidgwick, like Myers, his disciple, to whom he was very close and who died a few weeks after him, regarded the universe as an intelligible whole and affirmed that the spirituality of the Cosmos might reveal itself in the intuitions of primitive peoples or in the equally «primitive and unsophisticated mutterings of spirits speaking through mediums» (Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1974, p. 119.). Does that mean he was supporting superstition? Certainly not! Vice versa, even if he believes that a fertile imagination has a big role to play in this life and that past experiences represent a fundamental part of our life and are essential to our knowledge, in any case reason is the essential
filter and the harmonising factor.
In his mind, past, present and future must link and harmonise together, if they don’t, human beings and society suffer. Marcus G. Singer says that Sidgwick was «more concerned with clarification than with criticism of the moral standards of his society» and felt he has been considered a conservative (See Marcus G. Singer, edited by, “Introduction” to Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Method, p. XXXV). But was he really a conservative? The fact that «he denies that the Utilitarianism could, giving existing knowledge, “construct a morality de novo”», could be interpreted as expression of true conservatism? Doesn’t the fact that he affirms we must start with the existing social order and the existing morality, make him, rather, the most innovative among the philosophers of his time because of his aim to harmonise personality and universality, past, present and future,present egoism and universality of the Cosmos (Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992, p. 20)? Doesn’t the fact that Sidgwick asks himself and has, hic et nunc, to match against today’s anxieties, feelings and joys with those of the past, present and future give a re-valuation of life in all its moments? Isn’t this philosophy the most revolutionary of philosophies?
First of all, Sidgwick is not only innovative in the sense that, in an age of Bigotry and Agnosticism, Atheism and Servilism, he doesn’t submit himself a-critically to the Church or the institutions, but also in the sense that his free consciousness is a sort of extra-sensorial perception of spirituality that necessarily feels a personal and moral relationship with the unity of God (even in the field of politics, in fact, as we have seen, in this field, as in the field of economy, laissez-faire is not enough to create the harmony of good). From the beginning of his “apostolic” days until his death he believes in the power of prayer as having a “universal function” and an indrawing of vital spiritual energy (Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, pp. 458-459, see also Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 131). The long-lasting friendship and relationship with his pupil, Myers, was mainly based on the belief in the non-discursive function of the mind that transcends the senses and perceives a noumenal reality. His mind is open and his personality complex, he represents a very well-balanced example of Rationalism and Romanticism. In fact, like Shelley, he believes that: «I am the eye with which the universe beholds itself and knows itself Divine» (Henry Sidgwick, letter written to Roden Noel, August 1866, in Bart Schultz, Henry Sidgwick: Eye of the Universe, quoted at p. 28). Man with all his facets is the centre of his attention. His attention is focused on individual improvement rather than on collectivist measures. It is a man of good will and profound wisdom that can change the world and not the institutions or the government. Saints can improve the Church while churches cannot create Saints. In the same way it is a good citizen who can make a good society. Social reforms are useful but must come from good, philosophically trained people. William C. Havard synthesises what Henry Sidgwick states in The Methods of Ethics «Ethics for Sidgwick forms an implicit foundation to politics; politics, while it may make certain moral obligations explicit through the law, cannot regenerate the moral nature of man» (William C. Havard, Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy, Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1959, p. 143; see also Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed., reprinted with a foreword by John Rawls, Indianapolis-Cambridge, Hackett Publish Company, 1981, p. 16, Unless otherwise noted we refer to this edition. There is a reprint from the original edition of The Works of Henry Sidgwick, Bristol, Thoemmes Press, 1996.).With these feelings he was led to help found the London School of Ethics, to counter the London School of Economics, inspired by the Fabian Society. He also represents a very well-balanced example of compromise between Idealism and Utilitarianism.
In his relentless investigation of the inner-self, he has a lot in common not only with some premises of John Stuart Mill, but also, possibly on a large scale, with a number of “assumptions” and “concerns” of Cambridge moralists like F. D. Maurice, W. Whewell, J. Grote and others who represented the «intuitionist alternative to Utilitarianism», that because Sidgwick never gave up «the hope of finding some support for it through religious views» (Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 6). He tries to find another balanced compromise between common sense and intuition; he believed that social and religious institutions, and scientific laws are based on intuitions; in fact, he said that we could «discern certain general rules» through «really clear and finally valid intuitions» (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 101). As we have said, he is not a conservative but «the idea of conservation is an important aspect of [his] political history». In his mind are present, also, the concept of «continuity and imitation». We must not forget that he loves classics and then he thinks that «the process of development of the modern national state is a continuous one with roots in antiquity» (William C. Havard, Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy, p. 140). His respect for the history of the past leads him to Common Sense Morality. But if religious, scientific and social laws are based on intuitions, what is considered the historical wisdom of the world, i. e., Common Sense Morality, is also mainly based on intuitions, but Common Sense Morality, as Bart Schultz says, is «a jumble of different methods» in need of being rationalised (Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 13). Faith and Utility must be blended together. So, if like Bart Schultz, we can say that Sidgwick’s Utilitarianism «rested on faith» we can also believe that his faith is utilitarian (Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 47). But his Utilitarianism was rather evangelical, the utility he was looking for was for you and for me, now and for ever.
In his search for improvement, he finds another well-balanced compromise between God and Evolutionism, which later leads to Hobhouse’s thought, in fact he thinks that we cannot know what improvement is «unless we bring to our social enquiry a criterion of political good and evil» and if we do not find a criterion of moral good before anything else (Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, pp. 396-397, and see William C. Havard, Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy, pp. 59-89). But criteria cannot be based on Materialism or Empiricism, and this is another very well-balanced example of compromise between descriptive and exhortative language. But anyway, even in his political or sociological writings, the main problem remains that of a moral nature, so most of his writings are devoted to confronting and criticizing Empiricism; in fact, for him «evolutionary philosophers committed the perennial error of confusing what is or will be with what ought to be» (Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 50.). For example, it is precisely on this point that, as I have said, he paves the way for R. M. Hare’s work (R. M. Hare, The Language of Morals, Oxford, 1952).
Empiricism, Evolutionism and Naturalism must be wrong because it is «impossible to establish the general truths of the accepted sciences by processes of cogent inference on the base of merely particular premises» (Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 61). It is the incoherence of empirical philosophers not to understand that «the data were useless and meaningless» without the active mind which can break up the world of the mere necessity of matter (Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 63). Life is a miracle and a miracle is always present in life, creation is a miracle and creation is always new; like the Divine mind, the human mind is also active, but this needs balance and compromise, harmony and coherence between the human and the Divine mind.
Sidgwick persisted in tracing and addressing those «human questions that inevitably led him beyond Empiricism and the categories of science»(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 67). But in so doing, on investigating the bases and the manifestations of thought, in aiming beyond thought in order to find the soul, as his beloved classical philosophers, above all Plato, had done, he opens another door to another space of investigation: psychology in connection with pneumology. He was also able to create a revolution in this field in trying to find a compromise and a link to French and German psychologists. Against associationists, who considered «the mind itself to be almost wholly passive», i. e. not having the possibility to exist separately from its physical organism, he thought the mind active in the sense of having the chance to survive(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 212). He participated in the Congress of International Psychology held in Paris and in the one held in Bonn and organised the one held in London; stressing that «the study of human mind is not itself psychology… it is at last a sort of vestibule of philosophy, from which one passes directly to the locus principiorum»(Henry Sidgwick, “Review of Spencer’s, The Principles of Psychology”, Academy 4, 1873, p. 131.). Then the place where all our principles start is philosophy, but philosophy itself cannot provide any principle without faith, hope and charity, i. e. my good and other’s good to be equal. He never gave up saying that all knowledge, scientific or otherwise, originated in faith, it was the ideal of freedom and the theist ideal, that even if conceived as experimental, gave unity to the plurality of the things of this world and set the ideal goals for higher achievements of humankind.
We can agree with Frankena, as synthesized by Bart Schultz, that for Sidgwick «the good cannot be wholly reduced to naturalistic definition in terms of facts»(Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 11). In his search for Rationalism he needed something irrational like faith and hope, feelings through which many people think that it was pure Utopia for him to suppose moral judgments could be fully rational, while others like Schneewind think that «such confident Rationalism seems to belong to the Victorian Age»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1977, p. 230. This quotation is also taken from Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 11).
But can Rationalism survive without Theism? This is the essential question of the Victorian Age, and Sidgwick in particular wants to give an affirmative answer, however troubled he, like many other people, «may have been with religious doubts»; in fact, every time he had any doubts, in spite of the doubts, eventually faith and hope prevailed(ibid). But, as in the Gospel, faith needs a support, miracles or something “tangible” of eternal life, something expressing rules not yet known by us, something revealing a world existing not only in our dreams. Unfortunately Sidgwick has nothing tangible.
Myers is certainly right when he thinks that Sidgwick was agreeing in saying that «when tradition, intuition and metaphysics had failed to solve the riddle of the universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a world unseen»(Frederic Myers, Fragments of Prose and Poetry, ed. Eveleen Myers, London, Longmans Green & Co., 1904, pp. 98-99. See also Alan Gauld, The Founders of Psychical Research, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968, p. 103.). What had been for centuries a problem of religion and faith in a future life, for Sidgwick (and later for his group, first of all Myers) becomes, as William McDougall said, «not only a matter of faith but also a matter of knowledge»(William McDougall, “Critical Notes of F. W. H. Myers, Human Personality and Its Survival of Bodily Death”, in Mind, n. 12, 1903, p. 513). As Marcus Singer says, in Sidgwick we find «an echo of Kant’s moral argument for belief in God and also a preecho of James’s pragmatic justification for religious belief»(Marcus G. Singer, edited by, “Introduction” to Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Method, p. 16). History, utility, feelings, faith, inclinations, dispositions, common sense unite in God. It is true, then, that faith and hope come first, but rationality has to put them to the test and lead them. This opens the door to his psychical experience research. But also for this experience, faced with the difficulty of finding empirical proof of the survival of the soul, he says: «as for the spirit-wrapping, I am in the same mind towards it as towards religion»(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to F. W. H. Myers, October 30, 1873, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 284.). Through this experience, the personality is interpreted as the expression of the universal mind and the human soul as part of the living soul of the universe, as a strong unity participating in both terrene and extra-terrene experiences. But in the attempt to prove the survival of the soul, he comes up against another phenomenon.
The psychic phenomena that convinced Sidgwick, and also Myers and of which they started to have proof that «mind could and did exist separately from the physical organism, was telepathy and also those occurrences where there is reason to suppose that the mind of one human being has affected the mind of another, without speech uttered, or word written or sign made»(F. W. H. Myers, “Introduction” to Phantasms of the Living, edited by E. Gurney, F. Myers and F. Podmore, London, Trubner & Co., 1986, p. XXXV). This was based on the belief that each human being possessed a soul as a binding unity of the various streams of consciousness. The soul that «lies at the root of each of us also lies at the root of the Cosmos too» and its love lasts through the ages(F. W. H. Myers, “Human Personality”, in Proceedings of the Society of Psychical Research, London, Trubner & Co., Ludgate Hill, 1987, pp. 277-291.). This point caused an endless controversy on whether the mind of a living human being affected the mind of another human being, or whether the mind of a living human being was affected by the surviving mind of a dead human being. Was there an eternal self or were there only segments of a self that, added together, formed a personality? The question is still open and reflects two different attitudes, theist and atheist dispositions, i. e. survivalist and nonsurvivalist inclinations; even if nobody seems to deny telepathy. For instance, Parfit, with much ingenuity, believes that there is no self and that the true view of personal identity is highly reductionist and «Egoism is an unstable hybrid of temporal neutrality and agent relatively»; in fact, «… a person is not a simple enduring self but only various physical and psychological connections and continuities», this relativizes reasons to the time of action and paves the way for a promising atheist non-religious ethics that eliminates theological premises and the existence of anything resembling a soul(Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, pp. 36-37, where he quotes Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1984, pp. 137-142, 418, 500). Regarding the contrasting problem Theism-Atheism, Derek Parfit says that in the recent past «most civilizations, most people, have believed in the existence of a God, or of several gods. A large minority were in fact atheists, whatever they pretended. But, before the recent past, few atheists made ethics their life’s work»(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 453.). Parfit, starting from Hume in favour of non-religious ethics, sounds like a echo of Karl Marx when he says «belief in God, or in many gods, prevented the free development of moral reasoning»(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 454). In so doing, Parfit referring to Hume’s view, i. e. personal identity through time is not a fact, but a fiction, cites him when saying «the Ego is merely a system of coherent phenomena… The permanent identical “I” is not a fact but a fiction»(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 139). Parfit defends Hume contra Sidgwick, but in following absolute impartiality he arrives to the impersonality of what I prefer now and gives priority to the «impersonal principle » because «impersonality is again better, even in personal terms»(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 444). In fact, he underlines «since personal identity over time just consists in the holding of certain other relations, what matters is not identity but some of these other relations»(Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p. 478.).
For Sidgwick this challenge to rational egoism undermines the most fundamental of our springs of actions because it is the separateness of persons that underlies Rational Egoism and guarantees social and universal justice, and also social and universal sanction. So he appeals to the metaphysical separateness of a person, invoking the principle that «the rationality of sacrifice requires compensation… and compensation requires that benefactors also be beneficiaries, and for compensation to be automatic, benefactor and beneficiary must be one and the same», but neither person slices nor person segments are suitable subjects of practical deliberation or reasons for action(David O. Brink, “Sidgwick and the Rationale for Rational Egoism”, in Essays on Henry Sidgwick, edited by Bart Schultz, p. 209). It is only if we deal with the same person that we have the concept of responsibility of that person. If we presume the unity of the personality and the idea of responsibility, perhaps, only then «we are left» not with the competing apparent intuitions, as Brink says, but with two experimental truths: «(1) that it is rational for a man to seek his own happiness; and (2) that it is rational for a man to seek general happiness»(J. L. Mackie, “Sidgwick’s Pessimism”, in Essays on Henry Sidgwick, edited by Bart Schultz, p. 170). These truths are not in themselves contradictory: a contradiction arises, and this is one of the most controversial aspects of Sidgwick’s morals theory, only when we add to these two intuitions, the factual statement that «what best promotes a man’s own happiness does not always coincide with what best promotes the general happiness…»(ibid). To solve this contradiction, like the many other contradictions, Sidgwick brings in, more than a postulate, an Experimental Theism that we must suppose to be right until we prove it to be wrong, i. e. God and Divine sanctions. William C. Havard is right when he says «Sidgwick’s regulative order for man in his social condition is internal. By universalizing ethical obligation, Sidgwick has reintroduced into secularized ethics a concept of amor Dei which is both opposed and superior to the principle of amor sui»(William C. Havard, Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy, p. 107). In so doing, according to William C. Havard, while «Bentham wanted to make man over in his own image, Sidgwick was on the whole more content with God’s product»(William C. Havard, Henry Sidgwick and Later Utilitarian Political Philosophy, p. 108).
So God has to come in to solve a contradiction between two intuitions, that would otherwise arise from the conjunctions of these intuitions with a factual truth. In this case it is the existential need to find a hypothesis to solve experimentally the problem that comes before the essence, this is not so different from what Sartre would affirm later. From here the possible Existentialism that Miller Turner finds in Sidgwick, but all this does not make Sidgwick fall into either Relativism or Scepticism, so I agree with Burt Schultz that Sidgwick, instead of carrying Scepticism one step farther, as Parfit does, to show that «not only is there no soul for an after life but there is no self for this one», vice versa he «continued to the end to allow himself “the indestructible and inalienable minimum of faith which humanity cannot give up because it is necessary for life”», and he couldn’t give up either(Bart Schultz, edited by, “Introduction” to Essays on Henry Sidgwick, p. 47; see also Letter to Lord Tennyson about In Memoriam, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 541).
The Victorian Age was a time of scientific, social, material progress and people increasingly thought that man could solve any problem, the idea that social justice was better than Divine justice seemed to prevail behind the birth, growth and strengthening of Positivism, Evolutionism, Socialism, Materialism, Naturalism, Agnosticism and Marxism, based on English Industrialization. But, as was his custom, Sidgwick did not seem to oppose it strongly. Vice versa, he affirmed that «at the time a considerable improvement in average human beings in the respect of sympathy is likely to increase the mundane happiness for men generally, and to render the hope of future happiness less needed to sustain them in trials of life»(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to J. R. Mozley, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 357-358). He never denied that a full secularized justice could take the place of the old theological culture; then did that mean that a post-theological culture was possible? Yes, but, as Bart Schultz says, «not yet», because society and people were not ready, or mature enough, for it. Did that mean that in future we would necessarily have a progress in human justice which does without Divine justice? Sidgwick could say no but, at the same time, he did not want to say yes, so he confined himself to a state of neutrality, regarding a religious role, but he says that for his life and for himself he had a strong inclination not to believe in a future without the hope of a Divine justice. Henry Sidgwick knew that every step forward in the progress of life could be formulated as an act of faith; this is the attitude inherited by James Ward who, after Sidgwick’s death, edited some of his posthumous books(Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, edited by James Ward, London Macmillan, 1902; see also Henry Sidgwick, Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and other Philosophical Lectures and Essays, edited by James Ward, London, Macmillan 1905.). This attitude, according to Miller Turner, «was not unlike that of Saint Anselm’s famous credo ut intelligam»; i. e. it is faith which renders life rational by postulating a God and a future life(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 243, where linking J. Ward to H. Sidgwick regarding life as irrational without faith, because it was faith that rendered life rational by “postulating a God and a future life”; see also James Ward, The Realm of Ends or Pluralism and Theism, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2nd ed. 1912, p. 416.). Frank Miller Turner adds to this that such faith was what Henry Sidgwick had attained in his mental crisis of 1887. He persisted in trying to find the basis on which the human individual ought to construct his life. Many believe that before his mental crisis he had been inclined to hold with Kant that we must postulate the continued existence of the soul, «in order to effect that harmony of duty with happiness which seem indispensable to rational moral life», they also believe that after the crisis, the attitude changed Pessimism(Henry Sidgwick, Journal, January 28, 1887, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 467). But, after the crisis, did he change his attitude? Did he say something different?
Sidgwick had made some changes in his The Methods; in fact, Ross Harrison, in his accurate The Sanctions of Utilitarianism analyses all the changes Sidgwick had made from the first to the seventh edition of his great book regarding sanctions(Ross Harrison, “The Sanctions of Utilitarianism”, in Henry Sidgwick, edited by Ross Harrison, Proceedings of the British Academy – 109, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001). He also analyses and compares «all three members of the Holy Trinity of English Utilitarianism, Bentham, Mill and Sidgwick»(Ross Harrison, “The Sanctions of Utilitarianism”, in Henry Sidgwick, edited by Ross Harrison, p. 95). Ross Harrison agrees with Mill when he says that «Bentham does not take morality itself to provide a sanction…», in fact «the incentives are not… taken to come from one’s own moral sense but, rather, from other people’s», i. e. «political» or «legal sanctions…, penalties artificially attached by law». Harrison also stresses that in the first edition of The Methods, Bentham is «much admired». But, and that certainly is not in line with Sidgwick’s thought, «what we get in Bentham is a political solution to a moral problem». Instead, in Sidgwick we get first «internal sanction», in fact he thinks that rather than «the pains of the externally imposed law we have the pains of the inner conscience»(Ross Harrison, “The Sanctions of Utilitarianism”, in Henry Sidgwick, edited by Ross Harrison, p. 98.). As Ross Harrison says, for Sidgwick «the internal sanctions of duty… will lie in the pleasurable emotion attending virtuous action, or the absence of remorse»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 164). In this case we have a theological solution to a moral and a political problem which makes possible the rational benevolence not only, as Ross Harrison believes, for professors but for «the philosopher with knowledge of the form of the good or the slave boy scribbling in the sand»(Ross Harrison, “The Sanctions of Utilitarianism”, in Henry Sidgwick, edited by Ross Harrison, p. 109.). Everybody, independently of sex, race, nationality or the time in which he lives, having faith and hope in God, can offer a solution that is a step above the «unconscious Utilitarianism» produced by Common Sense Morality; it is through this internal solution that everybody already «knows the right answer to the question about what… ought to do»(ibid). This is, whether Ross Harrison likes it or not, «the kind of moral truth which Sidgwick would have learned at his mother ’s knee», for which all his life he had «a strong disposition» and which intuitively grew, like it did in the primitive civilizations through the Incas, Confucius, the Old Testament and the New Testament.
It is true that Sidgwick rewrote the chapter regarding these problems, but not because of his «confession of failure», as Ross Harrison believes, but because he did not want to accept this failure and wanted to solve the problem, first of all for himself, even if “provisionally”, until it is proved wrong, to get out of the tunnel. Certainly Hastings Rashdall is right when he says that for Sidgwick any action can became wholly reasonable only with the aid of «a hypothesis unverifiable by experience reconciling the individual with the universal reason»(Hastings Rashdall, The Theory of Good and Evil, Oxford Clarendon Press, 1907, pp. 52-53.). To quote a book, or an argument a century old could seem out of fashion but I would like to remind you of an Italian philosopher, Gian Battista Vico, when he spoke of historical recurrences. In fact, universal thoughts, feelings or reasons are immortal. This is the case of Henry Sidgwick. He is very adaptable, flexible, takes into account all his critics, but doesn’t seem to have changed, throughout his life, his principles, his ends, his aims, his duties and his faith in universal harmony. It is worth quoting Hastings Rashdall again, «the absolute necessity of such harmony to the construction of a logically coherent science of ethics strengthened rather than weakened in the subsequent edition of [The Methods of Ethics]»(ibid).
In 1887, as we have already said, soon after one of his recurrent crises, which appears to have been his worst one, he said «my special business is not to maintain morality somehow, but to establish it logically as a reason system; and I have declared and published that this cannot be done, if we are limited to merely mundane sanctions, owing to inevitable divergence, in this imperfect world, between the individual’s duty and his happiness». He underlined also what he had already said in 1874 that «without some datum beyond experience “the Cosmos of duty is reduced to a Chaos”». He asks himself: «am I to recant this conviction…?»(Henry Sidgwick, Journal, March 16, 1887, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 472).
I don’t think he recants his conviction. In fact, he admits that he has won the struggle for freedom against bigoted Dogmatism, but now he has to face an even riskier, crueller battle against atheistic science and unfortunately «the faith in God and immortality… he had been struggling to clear from superstition suddenly seems to be in the air:…». But this struggle impressed on him «the ineradicable conviction that humanity will not and cannot acquiesce in a Godless world». He is convinced that «the man in men will not do this, whatever individual men may do». He is hurt by the fact that many people drive themselves to conclusions that go against feelings of faith and hope; because those very important feelings are feelings that «atheism outrages and agnosticism ignores»(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to Lord Tennyson about In Memoriam, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, pp. 539-540.). Once again he affirms that, «faith must be the last word: but the last word is not the whole utterance of the truth: the whole truth is that assurance and doubt must alternate in the moral world in which we at the present live, somewhat as night and day alternate in the physical world». Then he goes on «the revealing visions come and go; when they come we feel that we know: but in the intervals we must pass through states in which all is dark»(Henry Sidgwick, Letter to Lord Tennyson about In Memoriam, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 542). So, the real moments of light and faith are the internal sanctions and the pleasures of a good conscience and they are more important than external sanctions, like legal sanctions, social sanctions and penalties imposed by terrene authorities, are the real moments of light and faith(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 355). Sanctions can be reduced either in terms of common sense or in terms of general opinion, on this point, Sidgwick seems to have had clear ideas. In fact, we cannot say that something is right just because we have the intuition that it is right, but neither can we say that «anything is right, because an overwhelming majority of human beings thinks so and acts accordingly…». In fact, it is enough to «contemplate the monstrous beliefs as to right and wrong which this overwhelming majority has entertained and acted in previous ages»(Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, edited by James Ward, London, Macmillan 1902, pp. 167-168; quoted by Marcus G. Singer, edited by, in his “Introduction” to Henry Sidgwick, Essays on Ethics and Methods, “Introduction”, p. XXXVII). Sidgwick is perfectly right when he says that truth, justice and goodness come from our psychological, moral and religious insight, that is, the rationalization of internal intuition and external common sense. In this alternating of opposite reasons and contrasting impulses, there is a sort of internal debate producing internal Democracy that in its turn produces an external debate that at the end produces social Democracy, where Theism constitutes the harmonizing centre of all our thoughts and that, by creating internal harmony, must not impose itself by force, creating in so doing external disharmony. For Sidgwick:
the very notion of truth that is essentially the same for all minds, the denial by another of a proposition that I have affirmed has a tendency to impair my confidence in its validity…, if I have no more reason to suspect error in the other mind than my own, reflective comparison between the two judgments necessarily reduces me to a state of neutrality... the total result in my mind is not exactly suspense of judgment, but an alternation and conflict between positive alternation by one act of thought and the neutrality that is the result of another.(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, pp. 341-342)
But how do we come out of this contradiction of «conflict between positive alternation by one act of thought and the neutrality that is the result of another»? His suggestion is that we must make an appeal to our «individual moral consciousness and… to the common sense»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 343). But because we know that common sense can fail, individual moral consciousness remains the only reliable spring of action being founded on a «hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought», i. e. «the reconciliation of duty and self-interest»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 508). Of course, that is only possible if we have «a strong disposition» to accept this hypothesis, that has the same meaning as accepting faith, which doesn’t allow us to give up «the hope… through any legitimately obtained conclusion or postulate as to the moral order of the world». Without this faith and this hope it «would seem necessary to abandon the idea of rationalising [morality and justice] completely»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 508-509).
In addition to various problems in working out a perfectly rational code, «there is a problem of principle» and a problem of consciousness: «each of us is, first the possessor of a private consciousness and next, a member of a community, of interacting possessors of such consciousness… but they do not coincide»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 418.). Faith, then, is essential «while reason itself demands that we tolerate a substantial amount of irrationality in a positive morality. But reason does not deny that we can decrease the extent of the irrationality »(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 421.). How can we reduce the level of irrationality? How can we make «possessors of such consciousness coincide»? How can we make private consciousness and community consciousness coincide? That is possible only through duty, even if it is painful, and also through the hope of Divine justice. In fact, as seen, Sidgwick views the history of moral philosophy «predominantly internally», even if «political events… influence the history of ethics». So, it often happens that political facts prevail over religious ones, making them rigid within formal schemes; however, they sometimes maintain their original value for those who want them to. Because of this, he stresses the importance of the spread of Christianity, even if he thinks that right from the beginning we find in it the origins and the development of its future theocracy. But he conceives that this development «was due primarily not to any movement of theocratic ambition within the Church, but to the force of external circumstances – the collapse and chaos of secular authority that followed the fall of the Western Empire». So not only was the Church not completely responsible for the development of theocracy, it helped put the pieces of the empire together, when it broke up; in other words, the Church became «a kind of ark in which civilisation was carried across the disorder of the first five centuries after the barbarian invasions. The unity of Western Christendom was the source of such unity as was maintained in West European society in this chaotic period»(Henry Sidgwick, The Development of European Polity, edited by Eleanor Mildred Sidgwick, London, Macmillan, 1903, reprinted by Thoemmes Press, 1996, p. 223.). But Sidgwick recognises also that the Church was useful through the Victorian Age in moderating the harsher doctrines of laissez-faire economy, through regulations to protect the working conditions of women and children.
Sidgwick is convinced that if Theism is important to solve theoretically and scientifically the problem of knowledge, Christianity is important to solve historically the problems of duty, justice and sanctions. But, instead of using, like Whewell or Green, an apologetic argument which aims at giving the support of history to the proposition that «morality can best be understood if it is systematized in a way that shows the claims of Christianity to be true, he tries to present a history which can be accepted by readers of all persuasions»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 413.). But he does that to
widen his horizons and include in it all the people of good-will who are ready to suffer for their duties. Christianity must be purified from Dogmatism and Authoritarianism; but in so doing Sidgwick’s idea of God comes closer to that given by the example of Jesus Christ and the Martyrs, and his philosophy closer to that of Green. In this, Schneewind is right when he says that «The Methods was constructed with an eye to earlier attempts to show that morality rests on, and leads us to, the consciousness of God, its relevance to Green’s version of the effort is still clear»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p.411). So, the only difference between Green and Sidgwick would exist in the fact that the former, and here again we must agree with Schneewind, seems to have been «far more committed than Sidgwick to maintaining the truth of Christianity»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p.401).
As a matter of fact, Sidgwick had ended the first edition of The Methods with «a problem which can only be resolved by truth of a metaphysical or theological proposition asserting the
moral order of the universe»(J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p.212). But the moral order of the universe could be solved only through duty and self suffering for a just cause. After each of the several crises he went through, Sidgwick exercised what his friend William James, Professor at Boston University, considered the American Cambridge, would term «the will to believe»; and he started to pursue his personal and professional life according to that affirmation, as Frank Miller Turner says, «the life of reason was possible only after at least one non-rational act of its will»(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, referring to McDermott, The Writings of William James, p. 58). As we have already stressed, Sidgwick felt that he had emerged from his tunnel «by an act of will» and he didn’t want his mind to «turn on this hook any more»(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 485). As a sign and seal of this change, he recommenced his Journal and in his war against Empiricism, as Frank Miller Turner recognises, he realised that knowledge had become «so fragmented that any educated man must depend, as never before, on the authoritative judgment of other thinkers…» and on the «various channels of professional expertise…» exerting «undue or, possibly illicit authority over the minds of the men»(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 60). Sidgwick stresses, against the predominating Empiricism and Materialism, that metaphysical questions are useful in satisfying and in paying «genuine dividends to science by providing impetus to new discovery», through the stimulus of the imagination(Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 66). Because of this, he is convinced that anyone «who would say that man is now mature» and that his time «for stimulating dreams of youth is over» is wrong(Henry Sidgwick, Is Philosophy the Germ or the Crown of Science?, manuscript that is in the Wren Library, Add. MSS. c. 96, now in Frank Miller Turner, Between Science and Religion, The Reaction to Scientific Naturalism in Late Victorian England, p. 66). It is his pupil James Ward who confirms and develops the Sidgwickian idea that «almost every forward step in the progress of life could be formulated as an act of faith – an act not warranted by knowledge»(James Ward, The Realm of Ends or Pluralism and Theism, p. 415.).
The theistic ideal then was, for Sidgwick, essential to give unity to knowledge and assure humanity of being capable of warranted achievement. As we have seen, this concept being present in all his works, Sidgwick repeatedly says that he sees himself as a theist, and considers this «a belief which, though borne in upon the living mind through life and essential to normal life, is not self-evident or capable of being cogently demonstrated»(Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, p. 242; quoted by J. B. Schneewind, Sidgwick’s Ethics and Victorian Moral Philosophy, p. 377, in reference also to Henry Sidgwick, “A Dialogue on Time and Common Sense”, in Mind, vol. 3, n° 112, reprinted in Lectures on the Philosophy of Kant and other Philosophical Lectures and Essays, edited by James Ward, London Macmillan, 1905).Realizing this more and more, in one of his last essays, written just before died, Sidgwick arrived at the idea of Experimental Theism and, knowing this, affirmed that, in any case, the absence of any empirical proof of the existence of God does not constitute in itself a disproof(Henry Sidgwick, “On the Nature of the Evidence for Theism”, in A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 607). Having said this, he confirms the concept expressed on other occasions, as we have already stressed, «the reconciliation of duty and self interest is to be regarded as a hypothesis logically necessary to avoid a fundamental contradiction in one chief department of our thought»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 508). But this logically necessary hypothesis implicates another, that is, the existence of God. Then, «if we may assume the existence of such a Being as God, … it seems that utilitarians may legitimately infer the existence of Divine sanctions to the code of social duty as constructed on utilitarian bases; and such sanctions would, of course, suffice to make it always everyone’s interest to promote universal happiness to the best of his knowledge»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 506) . Through duty and self sacrifice, the universe reconciles: this is not the Jesus Christ of the external and formal world, but the Jesus Christ of poor people suffering for the injustice of this world. Can we impose moral duty and sufferings upon everybody and make them believe that if they suffer now they will enjoy eternity? Certainly not, in fact, «in our supposed knowledge of the world of nature there are propositions we know are taken to be universally true, which yet seem to rest on no other grounds than that we have strong dispositions to accept them and that they are indispensable to the systematic coherence of our beliefs. Then – it will be more difficult to reject a similarly supported sanction in ethics, without opening the door to universal Scepticism»(Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, p. 509). So God and duty seem at least indispensable for Henry Sidgwick’s systematic coherence. His whole life testifies this systematic coherence and his disposition towards the accomplishment of duty. Possibly he couldn’t prove the existence of God, but throughout his life he proved, even unknowingly, that his experimental belief in God made, and still makes, his soul crystal clear.
In conclusion, if we know that «in our supposed knowledge of the world of nature, propositions are commonly taken to be universally true, which yet seem to rest on no other grounds than that we have a strong disposition to accept them, and that they are indispensable to the systematic coherence of our beliefs», I can say that I know that I have this strong disposition to be a Theist and I would like to declare, like Henry Sidgwick, «being in my true self a theist, I believe that many persons are really faithful to themselves in being irreligious and I do not feel able to prophecy to them. If I have any complaint against them, it is not that they do not believe in God, but that they are content with, happy in a universe where there is no God; but many of them are not content, and to these I have nothing to say, not being able to argue the matter on any common ground»(A. and E. M. Sidgwick, Henry Sidgwick A Memoir, p. 228).
So, according to Sidgwick, vice versa, it would be worth disputing the question with people who, even if they do not have a strong disposition to believe in God, have a strong disposition to apply the principles of prudence, justice and rational benevolence. Perhaps, they, too, mirror what is found at the very basis of our life, thought and knowledge, that is the three theological and evangelical virtues: faith, hope and charity or patience, essential in every field of our life, including Science, that real Science. As Sidgwick said: «I conceive the one important lesson that Philosophy and Theology have to learn from the progress of Science is the vague lesson of patience and hope»(Henry Sidgwick, Philosophy, Its Scope and Relations: An Introductory Course of Lectures, p. 231.).
Published with the author's consent
© Hortense Geninet