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Henry Sidgwick (1838 – 1900) was an English Utilitarian philosopher and economist. He was the first president of the Society for Psychical Research and a women’s education advocate. Reason shows me that if my happiness is desirable and good, the equal happiness of any other person must be equally desirable.

Henry Sidgwick, English Utilitarian philosopher

Henry Sidgwick


Quotations from Henry Sidgwick

The principle which most Utilitarians have either tacitly or expressly adopted is that of pure equality – as given in Bentham’s formula, “Everybody to count for one, and nobody for more than one.”

One has to kill a few of one’s natural selves to let the rest grow — it’s a very painful slaughter of innocents.

By Utilitarianism is here meant the ethical theory, that the conduct which, under any given circumstances, is objectively right, is that which will produce the greatest amount of happiness on the whole; that is, taking into account all whose happiness is affected by the conduct. It would tend to clearness if we might call this principle, and the method based upon it, by some such name as “Universalistic Hedonism”.

Reason shows me that if my happiness is desirable and a good, the equal happiness of any other person much be equally desirable.The doctrine that Universal Happiness is the ultimate standard must not be understood to imply that Universal Benevolence is the only right or always best motive of action… it is not necessary that the end which gives the criterion of rightness should always be the end at which we consciously aim; and if experience shows that the general happiness will be more satisfactorily attained if men frequently act from other motives than pure universal philanthropy, it is obvious that these other motives are reasonably to be preferred on Utilitarian principles.

We think so because other people all think so; or because – or because – after all we do think so; or because we were told so, and think we must think so; or because we once thought so, and think we still think so; or because, having thought so, we think we will think so…

Against the formidable array of cumulative evidence for Determinism, there is but one argument of real force: the immediate affirmation of consciousness in the moment of deliberate action.

Assuming, then, that the average happiness of human beings is a positive quantity, it seems clear that, supposing the average happiness enjoyed remains undiminished, Utilitarianism directs us to make the number enjoying it as great as possible. But if we foresee as possible that an increase in numbers will be accompanied by a decrease in average happiness or vice versa, a point arises which has not only never been formally noticed but which seems to have been substantially overlooked by many Utilitarians. For if we take Utilitarianism to prescribe, as the ultimate end of action, happiness on the whole, and not any individual’s happiness, unless considered as an element of the whole, it would follow that, if the additional population enjoy on the whole positive happiness, we ought to weight the amount of happiness gained by the extra number against the amount of happiness lost by the remainder. So that, strictly conceived, the point up to which, on Utilitarian principles, population ought to be encouraged to increase, is not that at which average happiness is the greatest possible (…) but that at which the product formed by multiplying the number of persons living into the amount of average happiness reaches its maximum.

We have next to consider who the “all” are, whose happiness is to be taken into account. Are we to extend our concern to all the beings capable of pleasure and pain whose feelings are affected by our conduct? or are we to confine our view to human happiness? The former view is the one adopted by Bentham and Mill, and (I believe) by the Utilitarian school generally: and is obviously most in accordance with the universality that is characteristic of their principle. It is the Good Universal, interpreted and defined as ‘happiness’ or ‘pleasure,’ at which a Utilitarian considers it his duty to aim: and it seems arbitrary and unreasonable to exclude from the end, as so conceived, any pleasure of any sentient being.

Apart from any consideration of future consequences, we should generally agree that a man who sacrificed happiness to an erroneous conception of virtue or beauty made a mistaken choice.

Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons?


Sources for Henry Sidgwick quotes; Great thoughts Treasury, Utilitarian philosophy, Stafforini,


COMMENTS on Henry Sidgwick

Why should I concern myself about my own future feelings any more than about the feelings of other persons? One’s personal consciousness of happiness is of more importance to an individual than the happiness of other persons, and one’s personal consciousness of happiness in this moment is of more importance than one’s self at some distant time. The distant time may never come into being; thus it is better to experience the present moment to its fullest. Another person unknown to one, be it at this moment but in a distant place, would have no more impact on one’s happiness than if that unknown person was located in some distant time; and that other person in time might inhabit one’s own present body.

If experience shows that the general happiness will be more satisfactorily attained if men frequently act from other motives than pure universal philanthropy, it is obvious that these other motives are reasonably to be preferred on Utilitarian principles. Philanthropy in the local sense may run counter to philanthropy in a more distant sense. A hundred years ago, Andrew Carnegie building libraries for many communities did more good in the long run than giving money to drunk indigents who rightly claimed to be hungry. Thus he supported the building of libraries and not the Salvation Army, and claimed to be helping those who were eager to improve themselves and not those who sought only to drown their sorrows in drink. Carnegie said, “Ninety-five percent of charity money would do more good if it were thrown into the sea.”

So that, strictly conceived, the point up to which, on Utilitarian principles, population ought to be encouraged to increase, is not that at which average happiness is the greatest possible (…) but that at which the product formed by multiplying the number of persons living into the amount of average happiness reaches its maximum. I have thought along similar lines, and projected my reference point into a distant time when humans no longer exist, and from that point thought back on how to maximize total human happiness. It becomes a question of maximizing total numbers of human life, and giving those multitudes of people their free choice to pursue what they think of as happiness. Thus I give people absolute liberty to choose their own happiness, but from this distant view a killer would be depriving others of life, and therefore of their opportunities for happiness, and the murder would be deprecated in my view.

Apart from any consideration of future consequences, we should generally agree that a man who sacrificed happiness to an erroneous conception of virtue or beauty made a mistaken choice. This exposes the idea of “Art for art’s sake,” a sybaritic point of view of maximizing beauty, because it misses the real goal of personal pleasure and happiness. Beauty is a thing external to the human being, and it is the appreciation of the beauty that is to be sought, and that can be as easily had from viewing a perfectly clear blue sky, as in viewing a painting purchased for millions of dollars.

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