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Reviewed by:
  • Sidgwickian Ethics
  • Robert Shaver
David Phillips. Sidgwickian Ethics. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. xii + 163. Cloth, $65.00.

David Phillips argues that (i) Sidgwick gives good arguments for nonnaturalism, much like Nagel, though he should be sympathetic to an error theory, given the dualism of practical reason. (ii) When giving his “proof” of utilitarianism in Methods IV.II, Sidgwick, puzzlingly, does not appeal to his criteria for highest certainty, but rather argues ad hominem that common sense moralists should become utilitarians. This is because he saw that the criterial argument of III.XIII fails. (iii) Sidgwick’s argument against common sense morality is unfair, since he admits that his axioms are too abstract to provide guidance, yet criticizes commonsense morality for not providing guidance. He also overlooks the possibility of construing commonsense morality as a set of prima facie duties. (iv) Sidgwick’s argument from the axioms to utilitarianism fails, but the argument for egoism (or rather agent-relative reasons) succeeds. (v) Sidgwick takes himself to end with a conflict between egoism and utilitarianism, but should have held instead that in most cases one is permitted to do what one has the most agent-neutral or agent-relative reason to do.

Sidgwickian Ethics is excellent. The interpretive parts are especially strong. Phillips deploys a wide range of Sidgwick’s texts (and their secondary literature) and thorough knowledge of contemporary moral theory.

Here I consider (iv) and, parenthetically, (ii).

Phillips takes the argument for utilitarianism to turn on axiom “(U) The good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view … of the Universe, than the good of any other” (121).

Phillips argues that (U) cannot justify utilitarianism. Consider a view in which “(a) any person’s happiness is good; i.e., there is a requirement of reason for any agent, ceteris paribus, to promote it; and (b) there is a special requirement of reason for any agent to promote his own happiness three times as much as he promotes the happiness of anyone else” (125). (U) is true, but one ought to “promote the weighted sum of her own good and everyone else’s” rather than act as a utilitarian (125).

Phillips is correct that Sidgwick cannot go directly from the axioms to utilitarianism. Sidgwick thinks Kant and commonsense moralists agree with his axioms. So he cannot understand the axioms as ruling out nonutilitarian acts. But the obvious fix is to think that Sidgwick supposes that he has already, in III.XI, ruled out additional axioms (such as [b]). Whether that argument works is another matter (considered by Phillips in the fairly convincing [iii]). Sidgwick is not defeated simply by noting the possibility of a view like (a)–(b). (Note that the gap between the axioms and utilitarianism helps with the proof puzzle. The criteria for highest certainty might establish axioms such as (U), but not establish utilitarianism. Another argument, such as the ad hominem one, would be needed.)

I am also unsure how Phillips understands (U). He seems to claim that egoists disagree with (U) and that (U) is analytic (125). It seems preferable to read (U) as saying that from the point of view of the universe, I ought to be indifferent between equal amounts of good. This is not analytic (considerations other than the amount of good may matter), nor need the egoist disagree (the egoist does not take up this point of view).

The argument for agent-relative reasons has two premises:

(1) The distinction between any one individual and any other is real and fundamental.

(2) If (1), then I ought to be concerned with the quality of my existence as an individual in a sense, fundamentally important, in which I ought not to be concerned with the quality of the existence of other individuals (127–28).

Phillips glosses (1): “The key idea is just that of a kind of special connection: that the fact that a certain pleasure … is mine means I experience it in a way others do not” (131). If (1) is true, “that fact gives me special reason to want and pursue those goods. … My reasons are reasons for me. How...


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pp. 136-137
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