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Roger Crisp, The Cosmos of Duty. Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics

Christophe Salvat
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Roger Crisp, The Cosmos of Duty. Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015, 280 pages, ISBN 978-019871635-8

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1Initially published in 2015, Roger Crisp’s monograph on Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics has recently been reissued in a paperback format (2017). It follows Kataryna de Lazari-Radek and Peter Singer’s own book on Sidgwick, The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick and Contemporary Ethics, also published by Oxford University Press (2014 hardback, 2016 paperback). Over the last decade, no less than five important studies have been published on Sidgwick’s Methods and its influence on contemporary ethics. This demonstrates either a certain revival of utilitarianism, or a renewed academic interest for Sidgwick’s work after a series of attacks led by, in particular, Rawls, Dworkin, Williams, and Nozick in the 1970s and 1980s.

2Crisp’s Cosmos of Duty is divided into seven chapters, thus broadly respecting the structure of the Methods. Chapter 1 is devoted to the nature of ethics. Crisp defends the idea that the clarity and consistency of the arguments developed in the Methods suffer from Sidgwick’s lack of distinction between methods and principles of ethics. Methods are defined by Sidgwick as a “rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings ‘ought’–or what it is ‘right’ for them–to do, or to seek to realize by voluntary action” (ME, 1-2). A utilitarian principle can be vindicated by non-utilitarian methods such as common-sense. For Crisp, “philosophical ethics is an inquiry into what grounds or justifies our actions and any decision-procedure we adopt, and so we might wonder why Sidgwick emphasizes methods rather than ultimate principles. His book should perhaps have been titled The Ultimate Principles of Ethics, those principles each being a different statement of our ultimate reasons for actions; and if it had been so titled some of the lack of clarity introduced by his focusing on methods might have been avoided.” (21)

3Crisp also offers an interesting reflection on Sidgwick’s ‘weak’ form of internalism. According to internalism (developed by Wayne Sumner; see Sumner, 1996), pleasure refers to an ‘internal quality’, an unanalyzable ‘feeling-tone’ common to all pleasurable experiences, rather than an attitude relative to an experience. Chapter 2 is on free will. Crisp presents Sidgwick’s ‘non-standard’ compatibilist view. He criticizes Sidgwick’s restriction of ethics to voluntary actions, which—Crisps argues—should not be considered as a development of the common-sense view but as one of Sidgwick’s own views, based on his cognitivist theory of intention. For Crisp, the excessive ethical importance given to the notion of intention is not justified and cannot be accounted for, even from Sidgwick’s own utilitarian point of view. Chapter 3 deals with hedonism and the ultimate good. Crisp offers a very welcome discussion on different hedonistic views discussed by Sidgwick, although he does not always clearly distinguish between them. Crisp argues that, despite rejecting the feeling-tone view that Wayne Sumner associated with internalism, Sidgwick’s arguments in favour of a ‘Desirable Consciousness View’ are consistent with the feeling-tone view. He also discusses Sidgwick’s ‘welfare’ hedonism, according to which the only positive constituent of well-being is pleasure or enjoyment. Sidgwick’s hedonistic view, Crisp suggests, ultimately refers to intuitionist arguments. Chapter 4 further presents the three views on intuitionism which Sidgwick considers, namely, perceptional intuitionism, dogmatic intuitionism, and philosophical intuitionism. Crisp offers an interesting analysis of Sidgwick’s self-evident axioms of justice, prudence and benevolence (see below). Chapters 5 and 6, respectively, deal with virtue (in general) and virtues (in particular). These two chapters develop a point introduced by Crisp in Chapter 2, i.e., Sidgwick’s limitation of ethics to voluntary actions. This leads Crisp to raise the question of the value of virtue as a trait of character, in Chapter 5, and to criticize Sidgwick’s objections to common-sense morality, in Chapter 6. The seventh and final chapter is on the relations between egoism and utilitarianism. It offers an interesting suggestion on the dualism of practical reasons. This refers to the fact that two legitimate methods of ethics (egoism and utilitarianism) lead to two opposite conclusions. This dualism could have been avoided, Crisp argues, had Sidgwick considered justice, prudence, and benevolence as pro tanto principles, rather than self-evident axioms. Contrary to an absolute principle, a pro tanto moral principle does not enable one to conclusively determine the moral status of an action. It simply means that, other things being equal, we have a moral duty to follow this principle. The book ends, rather abruptly, on this proposition on pro tanto principles.

4It is not possible to give a detailed account of the book, no more than to cover the entirety of the Methods, in a few pages. I shall therefore limit myself to what I consider to be the most innovative aspects of Crisp’s book, namely, its critical analysis of Sidgwick’s views on intuitionism and of the volitional feature of ethical actions. Both lead to a new formulation of the dualism of practical reason.

5Let me first start with some important clarification comments, which Crisp makes at the very beginning of his book. Sidgwick defines the methods of ethics as rational procedures by which it is possible to determine what it is right for men to pursue by deliberate actions. He eventually considers only three such methods: egoism, intuitionism, and utilitarianism. But, as Crisp argues (21), it is possible to defend utilitarian principles with a non-utilitarian method, and vice-versa. And in practice, the different methods are assessed by Sidgwick only in so far as they succeed in establishing normative principles. This is why, despite being an acceptable method of ethics, philosophical intuitionism, which ultimately justifies utilitarian principles, does not stand as independent from, and as equally worthy as, utilitarianism. The nature of ethics, for Sidgwick, is to provide guiding principles to human beings. The legitimacy of these principles is guaranteed by the rationality of the procedure involved in their establishment. But, first and foremost, ethical theories are about principles, not methods.

6For Sidgwick, to be acceptable, self-evident rules must be (a) ‘clear and precise’ (b) ‘ascertained by careful reflection’ (c) ‘mutually consistent’ and (d) object of consensus or not object of dissensus, depending on the ME’s editions (125). There are three possible approaches to intuitionism: (1) perceptual or aesthetic intuitionism (2) dogmatic intuitionism (or common sense) and (3) philosophical intuitionism. Perceptual intuitionism is particular, immediate, sensitive, and non-consensual. It does not constitute a method, or provide principles. Sidgwick discards it straight away—a bit ‘too swiftly’, for Crisp (114). Dogmatic intuitionism offers sets of rules, such as ‘tell the truth’ or ‘do not break a promise’, but fails as a method because, being unsystematic, the rules are useless as normative principles. Moreover, rules are not equivalent to principles: Intuitive rules can be just accepted as such (through custom, education, social conditioning etc.), while genuine self-evident principles present themselves as ‘dictate[s] of reason’ (109). Last but not least, Sidgwicks’ appreciation of the “epistemic weight to give to common-sense morality” is rather evasive : “he is leaving it not only open for a dogmatic intuitionist to use the many cases in which utilitarian conclusions are violently at odds with common-sense morality as an internal argument against [his] own arguments for utilitarianism, but also unclear how we are to decide between two theories, one which may have more self-evidence on its side but is less consistent than the other with common-sense morality” (107). Philosophical intuitionism (PI) is the only form of intuitionism which Sidgwick regards as a proper method of ethics. As such, PI “is expected to transcend Common Sense in [its] premises, and is allowed a certain divergence from Common Sense in [its] conclusions” (ME, 373). According to PI, three general principles respect the criteria of self-evidence stated above: justice, prudence, and rational benevolence, all of which will eventually prove compatible with the utilitarian principles. However, Crisp questions the mutual consistency of these three principles. In particular, he argues that prudence should be defined as the action aiming at one’s overall good, rather than the impartial concern for all parts of one’s life, as it is usually stated (118). Thus understood, the principle of prudence turns out to be in direct conflict with the principle of rational benevolence, which commands people to aim at the universal good (120). Crisp concludes that Sidgwick’s discussion on intuitionism has been unfairly harsh with Perceptual Intuitionism, unnecessarily meticulous regarding Dogmatic Intuitionism, and surprisingly vague regarding Philosophical Intuitionism.

7Another point of interest in Crisp’s book is its emphasis on virtue ethics. Whilst acknowledging that Sidgwick is not an authority on the matter, Crips believes that it is worth remembering Sidgwick’s Aristotelian inspiration in the Methods (127). Chapters 5 and 6, entitled ‘Virtue’ and ‘Virtues’, respectively, remedy to the relative neglect to which this issue has been subjected in the literature. Crisp’s main claim is that Sidgwick’s self-acknowledged search for a comprehensive action-guiding ethical theory and his hard, yet for Crisp unjustified, opposition to perceptual intuitionism might explain his failure to “fully recognize the role that a well-worked-out conception of practical judgment might play in a developed form of dogmatic intuitionism such as Aristotle’s” (145). Crisp highlights Sidgwick’s limitation of ethical actions to voluntary actions as one of the most decisive differences between Sidgwick’s and Aristotle’s views on virtue. This partly explains why Sidgwick is so keen on downplaying the role of practical wisdom in ethics. This is doubly regretful according to Crisp. He considers that Sidgwick’s excessively narrowed quest trapped him into a dualism of practical reason that he could have otherwise avoided.

8Many will disagree with Crisp, and see in his essay an attempt to reconstruct the Methods on Aristotelian grounds. But Cosmos of Duty nevertheless remains a must-have book for anyone interested by Sidgwick’s moral philosophy. It is a detailed and rigorous study of Sidgwick’s Methods. Crisp’s personal insights may not convince all. But I have little doubt that all will find them insightful and inspiring.

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Sumner, Leonard W. 1996. Welfare, Happiness, and Pleasure. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Christophe Salvat, « Roger Crisp, The Cosmos of Duty. Henry Sidgwick’s Methods of Ethics », Œconomia [En ligne], 8-4 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 23 janvier 2019. URL :

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Christophe Salvat

Centre Gilles-Gaston Granger, Aix-Marseille Université (AMU)

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