- The Cosmos of Duty: Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics by Roger Crisp
The career of Oxford philosopher Roger Crisp has produced a wonderfully rich yield of elegant, lucid philosophizing that combines in a rare mix historical erudition and brilliant, creative, and highly interdisciplinary ethical argument. Crisp is steeped in Aristotle and Mill, W. D. Ross and Derek Parfit, but his deepest source of inspiration is by his own admission the Victorian era Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick (1838–1900), author of the famous Methods of Ethics (1874). Although Sidgwick has been regarded as a kind of master of those who know by everyone from Brand Blanshard and C. D. Broad to John Rawls and Peter Singer, his star has been on an especially dramatic ascent in recent decades, in very [End Page 510] large part thanks to the efforts of Crisp and Parfit, the Oxford Sidgwickians.
This latest book thus reflects some of Crisp’s most important historical/philosophical efforts, even if they are presented by way of commentary on, and reconstruction of, the claims of Sidgwick’s Methods. As Crisp explains, “In my view, Sidgwick is largely correct in his quietist non-naturalist (or perhaps broadly naturalist . . .) metaethics, his intuitionist epistemology, his placing of consequentialist ethics ahead of deontology, his giving weight to both impartial and personal perspectives in the ‘dualism of practical reason,’ and his hedonistic view of well-being. But more broadly he excels in seeing which concepts, distinctions, arguments, and positions are of most ethical significance, and in elucidating them” (vii).
This is to say that Crisp really goes quite some way with Sidgwick, even on some very provocative points. This book, which is arranged thematically rather than as a chapter by chapter analysis, affords not only insightful exegetical treatments of the Methods on the nature of ethics, free will, hedonism, intuitionism, virtue and the virtues, and egoism versus utilitarianism, but also very cogent reconstructions and defenses of Sidgwick’s metaethical objectivism, hedonistic account of well-being, and recognition that impartial reasons—the “point of view of the universe,” as Sidgwick called it—can be in conflict with egoistic or self-interested reasons (this conflict between the “Good of All” and “Own Good” is the dualism of practical reason).
Crisp’s treatment of the classical hedonist account of ultimate good is singularly illuminating as both an interpretation of Sidgwick and a tentative defense of what does indeed deserve to be called the classical view. He carefully explores the many issues and variations, from the synonymic view that ‘good’ means ‘pleasant’; to the externalist accounts interpreting pleasure or pleasurable consciousness in terms of a positive attitude toward, or desire for, the continuation of the conscious state in question; to internalist or mental state accounts. Thus, “the difference between internalism and externalism is a difference in what kind of feeling pleasure is. According to internalism, the feeling of pleasure can be characterized without reference to any external attitudes; while according to the more plausible versions of externalism, pleasure is the feeling of having some experience to which some attitude external to it is being taken, such as a desire to sustain that experience” (67). Sidgwick, Crisp rightly claims, resists any synonymic account, but vacillates on extenalist/internalist issues, since he notes for example both the “lack of correlation between strength of attitude and feeling of pleasantness” and the heterogeneity problem that there seems to be “no single phenomenological property common to all pleasurable experiences” (67). Some, notably Katarzynade Lazari-Radek and Singer, in their The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics (2014), have tried to challenge a rigid externalism/internalism dichotomy, but still end up defending an interpretation of Sidgwick that incorporates elements of externalism, with pleasure as a state of consciousness apprehended as desirable, but without any one feeling tone. Crisp, however, insightfully urges that Sidgwick’s tergiversations suggest that he “at heart accepts the feeling-tone view of pleasure, but is misled by the heterogeneity argument into developing various forms of externalist account which are...