Utilitarianism and Phenomenology

From Phenomenological Approaches to Moral Philosophy, edited by John J. Drummond and Lester Embree, Kluwer Academic Publishers. This is Vol. 47 in Kluwer's Contributions to Phenomenology series.


 Utilitarianism is a general tendency within ethical theory that may or may not incorporate a significant phenomenological element, depending on how its basic ideas are developed. At its center is the view that moral distinctions are to be defined in terms of the causal role of actions or character traits. In writers such as Richard Cumberland (1631-1718), Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), and J. J. C. Smart, ethical theories of a specifically utilitarian type are developed by a priori analysis, hypothetical reasoning, or simply by the specifying and application of definitions. Of such theories we shall have little to say here. Other writers, such as David Hume (1711-1776), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) advance utilitarian ethical theories that contain essential phenomenological components. It is upon theories of this type that we shall focus. Many essentially utilitarian ethical theorists of the late 20th century, such as Stephen Toulmin, Charles Stevenson and Richard Hare, actually do engage in what could justifiably be called phenomenological analyses of language and experiences thereof. But they prefer to call what they are doing "logic" or "semantics."

When I say that an ethical theory contains phenomenological components, what I mean is that in the formulation and defense of that theory the essences of relevant experiences are presented on the basis of a, presumably, direct and full acquaintance thereof. This may be so--and in the history of ethical theory has most often been so--in cases where the one developing the theory does not explicitly acknowledge or does not fully understand that they are conducting "phenomenological" analyses in this precise sense. Nevertheless, an attentive examination of their statements may show that this is what they are doing. Or, in many cases, if they are not doing phenomenological analyses, it is unclear what type of investigations and claims are involved in the development of their theory: what is the precise nature of their claims and of the evidence supporting them. In the case of many utilitarian as well as other types of ethical theorists, the phenomenological component is frequently more obvious from its absence where clearly needed than from its actual presence in the relevant analyses.

Here we shall concentrate mainly on relevant portions of the works of Hume, Mill, and Sidgwick. Because of limitations of space we cannot be systematically or critically thorough with their ethical theories as a whole, nor deal with alternative interpretations thereof.



Utility is an essential component of David Hume's ethical theory, and he is properly included in any account of utilitarianism. He is, however, not a pure utilitarian; for, as we shall see, there are, on his view, moral distinctions that are not based on utility in any way--which is not a subtle point in his theory. And he is not a hedonist in his theory of value, as tends to be the case with later utilitarians. That is, he does not hold that the specific utility involved in virtues and right actions is that of producing pleasure or happiness. On the other hand, he is in practice perhaps the most emphatically "phenomenological" of all the ethical theorists who regard utility as having an essential role in the moral life.

The primary moral distinctions, for Hume, fall between personal qualities or "qualities of mind," such as benevolence, justice, courage, wit, chastity, modesty, etc. These are, he is very clear, internal states. Actions have a moral character only via their association with them. "The external performance," he says, "has no merit. We must look within to find the moral quality...." (T 477-78)1

The distinction between the qualities of mind that are virtues and those that are not is an objective one, not dependent on how particular human subjects may think or feel about it, and it is universal, the same for all--at least for all rightly informed and thoughtful people. This is true in spite of the fact that distinctions between virtues and non-virtues are not constituted or conveyed to us by reason or understanding, but by feeling (passion, sentiment). The sentiments which determine moral boundaries are essential parts of human nature, and ultimately derive from "the original fabric and formation of the human mind, which is naturally adapted to receive them" (E 172)2, or "from the eternal frame and constitution of animals, is ultimately derived from that Supreme Will, which bestowed on each being its peculiar nature, and arranged the several classes and orders of existence." (E 294)

Far from fitting into such twentieth century classifications as "social subjectivism,""personal subjectivism," or "emotivism," Hume's theory more closely aligns with natural law theories, minus, of course, their emphasis upon the ability of reason to grasp ultimate ends and determine ultimate principles of morality.

Fundamental to Hume's theory is his distinction between reason (understanding), on the one hand, and sentiment (feeling) on the other. This distinction might properly be drawn on a phenomenological basis, but Hume presents it from within a mixture of apriori and descriptive observations. Both reason and sentiment are, of course, essential capacities of the human mind, not accidental ones. Both are, as such, directly inspectable by reflection. We know that they are by directly examining them, and then certain observations and deductions as to what they do and can do may be made as well.

Reason, for Hume, has only two functions: to discover the relations of ideas by comparing ideas to one another, and to infer the existence of matters of fact from given impressions and ideas. (T 463) It deals in truth and falsehood, which requires its ideas to be, not realities, but of realities. This much he offers us as description. Passions, volitions and actions, by contrast, are "original facts and realities, compleat in themselves, and implying no reference to other passions, volitions, and actions." (T 458) This seems, again, to be phenomenological description: presenting the essence of types of experiences from a direct examination of them.

From these essential descriptions of reason and sentiment, Hume then deduces his well-known view that moral distinctions do not originate from reason unaided by sentiment. He also distinguishes certain "calm" sentiments which have been mistaken for reason in action. (T 417-418) And, in a very abrupt phenomenological appeal, he describes our experience of vice in order to show that vice is no matter of fact, such as might exist apart from human attitudes and be inferred by reason:

"Take any action allow'd to be vicious: Wilful murder, for instance. Examine it in all lights, and see if you can find that matter of fact, or real existence, which you call vice. In which-ever way you take it, you find only certain passions, motives, volitions and thoughts. There is no other matter of fact in the case. The vice entirely escapes you, as long as you consider the object. You never can find it till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, toward this action. Here is a matter of fact; but 'tis the object of feeling, not of reason. It lies in yourself, not in the object. So that when you pronounce any action or character to be vicious, you mean nothing, but that from the constitution of your nature you have a feeling or sentiment of blame from the contemplation of it." 

(T 468-469)

Here the nature or essence of an object is clearly to be settled on the basis of a descriptive claim about the experience of it, of where you "find it."

Hume continues on this phenomenological route by comparing vice and virtue to secondary qualities (sounds, colors, heat and cold, etc.), "which, according to modern philosophy, are not qualities in objects, but perceptions in the mind." (Misguided phenomenology is still phenomenology!) The appeal to the "breast" and what is found therein is characteristic of the type of quasi-phenomenological work routinely engaged in by British Empiricism up through the nineteenth century.

Having concluded that moral distinctions originate from a natural sentiment, Hume then proceeds to explore which 'qualities of mind' are picked out by the moral sentiment as virtues and therefore constitute "Personal Merit." (Of course there is a companion sentiment of moral aversion that determines the range of vices.) Here, he thinks, one "can never be considerably mistaken in framing the catalogue.... He needs only enter his own breast for a moment" (E 174) and the topography of virtues and vices among qualities of mind will be clear.

Having in this way got "the catalogue," Hume then tries to determine what it is about the particular mental qualities that evokes moral approbation or disapprobation. The by far greater part of both the Treatise Book III and the Enquiry is devoted to reflection on and argument about this particular issue.

The outcome of his supposedly 'empirical' survey of the lawlike regularities of the moral life is that a virtue must fall into one of four classes: traits that are useful to others, useful to the one who has them, immediately agreeable to others, or immediately agreeable to the one who has them. A virtue may fall into more than one of these classes, as does benevolence, but it may also fall into only one, as does justice. Thus, in Hume's own language, "Personal Merit consists altogether in the possession of mental qualities useful or agreeable to the person himself or to others." In this manner "the complete delineation or description of merit seems to be performed as naturally as a shadow is cast by the sun, or an image is reflected upon water." (E 268; cp. 270, 277 and T 590-591)

Now there can be no doubt that, on Hume's view, there are virtues with no touch of utility in their makeup. Cheerfulness is but one instance from "another set of mental qualities, which without any utility or any tendency to farther good, either of the community or of the possessor, diffuse a satisfaction on the beholders, and procure friendship and regard." (E 250. Cp. 263-- concerning eloquence, genius, good sense and sound reasoning, which "have a merit distinct from their usefulness"--and T 611-613)

One might then well ask what is that unifying principle which allows us to bridge the gap between the four classes and find them all to be cases of, precisely, virtue. Here it is that we come upon what must be called a descriptive ultimate in Hume's account: the sentiment of moral approbation itself. Hume's view is that we can and do directly identify and differentiate a peculiar sentiment of being pleased with a mental quality, and that we can find by reflection that a certain group of mental qualities evoke or are objects of (he speaks in both ways) that sentiment or feeling. It is a "pleasing" feeling, as aversion to vice is painful. But the mental qualities are not virtues, nor discovered to be virtues, because of the pleasure. Instead: "...in feeling that it pleases after such a peculiar manner, we in effect feel that it is virtuous.... Our approbation is imply'd in the immediate pleasure they convey to us." (T 471; cp. 296) The impressions by which moral good and evil are known are, accordingly, not pleasures or pains merely, but they are "particular pains or pleasures." (T 471, Hume's emphasis)

Hume's analysis says very little, however, about precisely how the pleasant feeling of moral approbation is distinct from other pleasant feelings. At this as well as other points one is painfully aware of how far Hume is from a carefully elaborated phenomenological viewpoint. His younger contemporary, Adam Smith (1723-1790), criticized Hume's use of utility as a moral concept at all, on the grounds that we should, if Hume were right, give moral approbation to anything that is useful, say a convenient mechanical device or an intellectual technique. "It seems impossible," Smith said, "that the approbation of virtue should be a sentiment of the same kind with that by which we approve of a convenient and well-contrived building; or that we should have no other reason for praising a man than that for which we commend a chest of drawers."3

Hume's response to this type of criticism, though relegated to a footnote, is highly instructive of his actual reliance upon the phenomenological appeal in his ethical theory as a whole. He remarks that "We ought not to imagine, because an inanimate object may be useful as well as a man, that therefore it ought also, according to this system, to merit the appellation of virtuous." (E 213n) And why not? "The sentiments, excited by utility, are, in the two cases, very different; and the one is mixed with affection, esteem, approbation, &c., and not the other.... There are a numerous set of passions and sentiments, of which thinking rational beings are, by the original constitution of nature, the only proper objects: and though the very same qualities be transferred to an insensible, inanimate being, they will not excite the same sentiments." (Ibid.)

This is an obvious, if somewhat adhoc, effort at a comparative phenomenological analysis. Hume continues on to say that though there is indeed a "species of approbation attending even inanimate objects, when beneficial, yet this sentiment is so weak, and so different from that which is directed to beneficent magistrates or statesmen; that they ought not to be ranked under the same class or appellation." And, finally, a more general phenomenological point: "A very small variation of the object, even where the same qualities are preserved, will destroy a sentiment. Thus, the same beauty, transferred to a different sex excites no amorous passion, where nature is not extremely perverted."

Two significant points emerge from this discussion, and are in fact found throughout Hume's discussions of the moral sentiment and moral distinctions.

First, feelings or sentiments have objects. They are of objects. There is an intentionality of sentiment. But of course they cannot represent objects (mental qualities, acts), for that would deprive them of their status as "original existents" and make it impossible for them to be causally efficacious in governing action. What we are to make of the 'ofness' of sentiment and of how it differs from that of a representation (genuine intentionality, one might suppose?) is something Hume never clarifies.

Second, the moral and other sentiments have proper objects. Hume recognizes that a sentiment of moral approbation or disapprobation can be directed or fail to be directed toward a particular person, action,or quality in the absence of the requisite understanding. Thus, "among all uncultivated nations,... courage is,"mistakenly, "the predominate excellence...." (E 255) Among the Sythians and many other ancient nations, "martial bravery...destroyed the sentiment of humanity; a virtue surely much more useful and engaging." (Ibid.) Further, in individual judgment "all the circumstances of the case are supposed to be laid before us, ere we can fix any sentence of blame or approbation." (E 290) But of course we do often "fix our sentence" before all the facts are laid before us, as Hume well knew and acknowledged, and often err in some fashion in our sentiment. So, as a sentiment is of an object, it also is capable of rightly or wrongly attaching itself to an object--moreover, an object (mental quality) which may not really be there at all, as distinct from the one mistaken for it. If we do not wish to speak here of truth or falsity, we at least must say the sentiment is proper or improper to the case at hand. Here again, Hume's 'phenomenology' of the moral sentiment is quite incomplete at best.

The incompleteness of Hume's account is also seen in his effort to explain why the mental qualities in fact selected by the moral sentiment as objects are the ones selected. One whole Section of the Enquiry is devoted to the issue of "Why Utility Pleases." But this Section is actually a refutation of egoism, and an invocation of the 'principles' of Sympathy and Humanity (the latter of which is claimed to be identical with the moral sentiment), which supposedly explain how the usefulness of traits to others evokes our approbation. Nothing whatsoever is done to explain why utility pleases. "Usefulness is agreeable, and engages our approbation. This is a matter of fact, confirmed by daily observation." (E 218) And "In common life, we may observe that the circumstance of utility is always appealed to." (E 212) But, beyond these proto-phenomenological claims, Hume gives nothing to explain why utility pleases at all, but at most something about why utility to people in general pleases me in particular--in virtue of the two principles just mentioned, which I discover, if he is right, in my "breast."

He does indicate at one point that "it is a contradiction in terms that anything pleases as means to an end, where the end itself in no wise effects us." (E 219) And this might suggest that he regards as analytic the claim that if we are pleased with an end the means to it pleases us. However, that would rule out any serious inquiry, such as he seems to be mounting, into the question of why utility pleases.

And Hume likewise never explains why those mental qualities that are immediately agreeable are immediately agreeable. It remains a brute phenomenological fact that upon them, as well as upon mental qualities that are useful, the phenomenologically distinct sentiment of morality is directed. Of course the question that Adam Smith raised with reference to utility also arises with reference to the quality of being immediately agreeable. The flavor of strawberry ice cream, for example, is immediately agreeable to me. Why is it not the object of moral sentiment? Hume will have to find here again a special quality in the sentiment that picks out wit, for example, that is not present in the sentiment of approbation that picks out the flavor of strawberry. Hume's ethical theory is essentially phenomenological in its method, but in him the method is not carefully elaborated and adequately applied.



For Hume, usefulness or utility is understood with reference to a vaguely specified class of human interests, or whatever is in the interest of human beings. He does not attempt to reduce the end to which utility serves to any one thing, much less then to pleasure or happiness. This is very likely due to his high regard for Joseph Butler (1692-1752), who strongly supported a broad and irreducible pluralism in human "interests" and motivations--and who, incidently, may well deserve the title of all time most thorough and accurate phenomenologist of the moral life.

Bentham, by contrast, simply ignores the careful work done by his predecessors and unceremoniously declares there to be a sentiment in the human mind "which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question."4 He has nothing to say about how he discovered this sentiment or how we can phenomenologically verify his statements. He lays down definitions as if they were insights, and proceeds as if others have the burden of proof in showing him wrong.

John Stuart Mill comes to ethical theory and utilitarianism from Bentham's starkly hedonist theory of interests and motives, presented as the basis for legal and social reform and with no foundation in the description of experience. But Mill is much more careful than Bentham to do justice to the facts of moral experience. The heart of Mill's utilitarian outlook is not so much his claim that what determines moral distinctions is utility, but rather his claim that the only thing that serves as a moral end is pleasure, confusedly identified and occasionally distinguished from happiness, depending on the context of discussion.

Utility itself, as Mill (and Bentham) understands it, is not something that could be directly subjected to phenomenological analysis. Indeed this is also true of Hume. It is, after all, a causal notion. Utility is declared by Bentham to be "that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness, (all this in the present case comes to the same thing)...." (Ibid) Mill states that the creed which takes utility to be the foundation of morals "holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness...."5 Whether stated in terms of a "tendency" or of actual consequences, the utility in question for ethical theory is not an intrinsic feature of actions or personal qualities. The phenomenological aspect of any such theory will therefore be that which deals with ends or goods, desire or motivation, or other aspects of the intrinsic nature of the experiences that make up the moral life.

For Mill, the primary topic of phenomenological analysis is desire, and thereby the good or end (summum bonum). His central claim is that we desire happiness and that we, at least in the final analysis, desire nothing else. Then, as is well known, he attempts to deduce from this his central normative proposition, "that happiness is desirable, and the only thing desirable as an end; all other things being only desirable as a means to that end." (op. cit., 414)

At the heart of Mill's utilitarianism, then, lies the claim that people do desire happiness: both their own as well as that of others. Is this a phenomenological claim, an essential description of desire on the basis of a reflective grasp of the experience of it? I think it must be so intended by Mill. First, it does not seem to be, for him, merely an accidental feature of desire that it is for happiness (pleasure), nor does it seem to be something he has inductively or hypothetically established, and which might be disconfirmed by desires yet unexamined.

But secondly, it seems he comes to his conclusion by reflecting upon desire itself, and not, like Bentham, by merely specifying how things must be. The parallel drawn between "visible" and "desirable" suggests this. The only proof that an object is visible is that it is seen. Its being seen is surely known through reflection on experience. And likewise with something being desired. What is the object of a particular desire will be known by reflection upon the desire, and therefore provides a case, whatever we may call it, of proto-phenomenological description.

This is confirmed by the fact that when Mill comes to show that happiness is the only thing desirable as an end, he begins by admitting that it is not. This too can only be understood as a finding of reflection. "The utilitarian doctrine," he states, "maintains not only that virtue is to be desired, but that it is to be desired disinterestedly, for itself," i.e., as an end. (415) "Utilitarian moralists.... not only place virtue at the very head of the things which are good as means.., but they also recognize as a psychological fact the possibility of its being, to the individual, a good in itself, without looking to any end beyond it... as a thing desirable in itself." (Ibid.) Virtue along with music, health and even money can, "as a psychological fact," be desired as an end. "It may, then, be said truly that money is desired not for the sake of an end, but as part of the end." (415) Likewise for power and fame, and perhaps for various other things. There is certainly no reason, on his account, why cookies with milk could not be an end in itself.

His further account of these matters becomes, however, rather confused. The "psychological fact" that things other than happiness may be ends in themselves is given at least two, not necessarily inconsistent explanations. One is that it is through association with happiness that virtue and other things become desired for their own sake. Desire, which naturally is turned toward happiness alone, becomes directed by association toward virtue, etc. without any explicit reference to happiness. The other explanation is that virtue and so forth actually become parts of happiness. (415-416) "The desire of it is not a different thing from the desire of happiness any more than the love of music or the desire of health. They are included in happiness." (Ibid.) It seems, strangely enough, that to desire the part is the same as to desire the whole--a proposition which does not immediately evoke confidence. Or possibly the part is desired through its 'association' with the whole.

The exposition of desire is further complicated in Mill by the introduction of pleasure into the discussion. "Those who desire virtue for its own sake desire it either because the consciousness of it is a pleasure, or because the consciousness of being without it is a pain, or for both reasons united." (416) If virtue gave one no pleasure, Mill continues, "he would not love or desire virtue, or would desire it only for the other benefits which it might produce...." (417) This comes close to simply saying that we do not, after all, desire virtue for its own sake, but for the sake of the pleasure it gives us. If it does not say that, it must say that the pleasure which virtue gives is what causes us to desire virtue itself, without our desiring virtue for the sake of the pleasure. Possibly three different accounts, then, of how we come to desire things other than happiness for their own sake are given by Mill: by association, by the whole/part relation, and because of the pleasure those things give us. How the three accounts interrelate is left obscure.

Although Mill occasionally asserts that happiness is pleasure and absence of pain (395), his descriptions of happiness make it clear that this cannot be so. Pleasure is a feeling or sensation of a certain kind. But happiness is, as he clearly acknowledges, a life of a certain kind. (399) And if its parts, as a life, could consist of things like virtue, music, and money, then it certainly cannot be a sensation, which it would be absurd to suppose might have such parts.

In concluding his discussion of desire and happiness, Mill introduces yet another perspective on the relationship between desire and happiness/pleasure, in the course of which he makes a very explicit statement of the phenomenological character of his inquiry. Is it "psychologically true," he asks, that "human nature is so constituted as to desire nothing which is not either a part of happiness or a means of happiness"? (417) With this, he holds, "we have evidently arrived at a question of fact and experience, dependent, like all similar questions, upon evidence. It can only be determined by practised self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others."

And what is the answer to the question? Mill finds that an unbiased reading of

"...these sources of evidence...will declare that desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable or rather two parts of the same phenomenon; in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact; that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant, is a physical and metaphysical impossibility."


With respect to (i) desiring something and (ii) finding it pleasant, Mill here says the following:

  1. They are inseparable.
  2. They are parts of the same thing.
  3. They are one and the same.
  4. They are proportionally linked by both physical and metaphysical impossibility.

It seems as if Mill takes 1 through 4 to be simply the same things. Of course they are not, and one can hardly believe that Mill thought they were. However, if they are not, what account might be given of their relationship to each other? Of this Mill gives not the least suggestion, and very close phenomenological work would be required to make a solid start.

In this same passage he proceeds phenomenologically to distinguish will from desire, and to admit that will may, "from habit," be directed without regard to pleasure to be achieved or caused by action. "A person of confirmed virtue or any other person whose purposes are fixed carries out his purposes without any thought of the pleasure he has in contemplating them or expects to derive from their fulfilment." (417) But this, he takes it, is irrelevant to his central thesis about desire and pleasure (happiness). "Will, the active phenomenon, is a different thing from desire, the state of passive sensibility, and, though originally an offshoot from it, may in time take root and detach itself from the parent stock, so much so that in the case of an habitual purpose, instead of willing the thing because we desire it, we often desire it only because we will it." (Ibid.)

This distinction between will and desire "is an authentic and highly important psychological fact," but that we will without regard to pleasure simply shows, in Mill's opinion, that the will is subject to habit, and "that we may will from habit what we no longer desire for itself, or desire only because we will it." (M 418a) But he insists that it remains true that "will, in the beginning, is entirely produced by desire.""Will is the child of desire, and passes out of the dominion of its parent only to come under that of habit." This is, for him, a phenomenological finding.

There is much else in Mill's discussions of ethical distinctions that bring out his essentially phenomenological bent. For example he raises as a matter of course the issue of "whether the feeling itself, of justice and injustice, is sui generis like our sensations of color and taste, or a derivative feeling...."(419) And, in deciding for the latter, he also concludes that "the subjective mental feeling of justice is different from that which commonly attaches to simple expediency...."(M 419c) But we turn now to some of the most important problems facing his central claims about desire.

Mill's argument from "psychological facts" which we have just gone through is set in terms of pleasure, not happiness. By contrast, some of the strongest statements on what utilitarianism amounts to are given in terms of happiness. (395) The psychological facts with respect to desire for happiness would have to differ strongly from those with respect to desire for pleasure, given the obvious differences, even on Mill's descriptions, between pleasure and happiness. This is surely marked in the automatic response we have to the idea of pursuing pleasure in contrast to that of pursuing happiness. Phenomenologically, the desire of pleasure differs greatly from the desire for happiness, and may even oppose it. But then an argument that nothing is good (desirable) but pleasure would not prove that nothing is good but happiness, nor conversely.



In addition one must point out that rarely if ever does one actually desire pleasure. As already noted, Butler made this point sharply. Sidgwick regards it as "a really debatable question whether the end to which our desires are always consciously directed is the attainment of such feelings" as pleasure, and accepts the Butlerian point that it is "obvious that hunger is something different from the desire for anticipated pleasure."6"The doctrine that pleasure (or the absence of pain) is the end of all human action can," he says, "neither be supported by the results of introspection, nor by the results of external observation and inference: it rather seems to be reached by an arbitrary and illegitimate combination of the two." (53) And he "finds no evidence" that "association of ideas" accounts for all impulses directed toward things other than our pleasure. (53-54) He makes a similar point with reference to the alleged desire for general happiness. (388-389)

Once one understands what it would be like actually to desire pleasure itself, however, it is difficult to resist the conviction that very rarely can one be truly said to desire pleasure alone, though aversion to pain itself is not an uncommon occurrence. (Problems with "Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake" are taken much deeper, partly on phenomenological grounds, in F. H. Bradley's Ethical Studies, Essay Three.)7

Turning to Sidgwick's positive theory, he can be said to have been the last of the major utilitarian ethical theorists with a significant phenomenological element in his work. But, like Mill, these elements have little to do with what is specifically utilitarian in his view, i.e., with productivity (of happiness, pleasure or whatever). Rather, they have to do with his analysis of the meaning or intentionality of the moral judgment and with his description of moral reasoning ("Methods" of ethics)--in particular, with how moral reasoning ultimately involves self-evidence and intuition.

His analysis of the meaning of the moral judgment is one of the most impressive cases of phenomenological work in ethical literature, though, strictly speaking, it is primarily an exercise in the phenomenology of meaning. He develops his analysis in the course of explaining how reason is (contrary to Hume) practical in moral experience. The experience commonly described as a "conflict of desire with reason" is not, according to him "properly conceived as merely a conflict among desires and aversions." (25) This is because moral judgments "cannot legitimately be interpreted as judgments respecting the present or future existence of human feelings or any facts of the sensible world,...the fundamental notion represented by the word 'ought' or 'right', which such judgments contain,...being essentially different from all notions representing facts of physical or psychical experience. (25-26)

In settling the question of how judgments involving "ought" and "right" are to be analyzed, i.e., what they are of or about, Sidgwick states that it "is one on which appeal must ultimately be made to the reflection of individuals on their practical judgments and reasonings." (Ibid.) He begins by showing the inadequacy of all attempts to explain these judgments as referring to feelings of approval (personal or social) or to penalties (pain) that may be imposed by man or God. (26-32) He finely discriminates between "feelings which undoubtedly accompany" moral judgments and "which ordinarily have more or less effect in determining the will to actions judged to be right," but which cannot be regarded as what the moral judgment means. So far from feelings of approbation being what is meant in the moral judgment, those very feelings presuppose, according to Sidgwick, a conviction that the conduct in question is "really right.""If I give up this conviction," the sentiment of approbation "will no longer have the special quality of 'moral sentiment' strictly called." (27-28)

This and various other considerations, not all phenomenological by any means, lead Sidgwick to his general conclusion that what the moral judgment is about is not a sentiment in the mind nor pains or pleasures that may or may not result from the actions in question. The 'notion' or concept expressed in the judgment of obligation and rightness is, he holds, too elementary to admit of definition," and so "must be taken as ultimate and unanalyzable." (31-32) The 'utilitarianism' advocated by Sidgwick is from the first of a strongly non-naturalistic variety. The moral judgment concerns neither "the present or future existence of human feelings" nor "any facts of the sensible world." (25)

But how, then, does the specifically utilitarian aspect enter for him? Interestingly, it is intuited. It comes in through a general principle that is argued to be self-evident, and self-evidence is then, by Sidgwick, treated as if it were the same thing as intuition. He states toward the end of his study: "I find that I arrive, in my search for really clear and certain ethical intuitions, at the fundamental principle of Utilitarianism," i.e., the principle of Rational Benevolence. (387) This is the principle "that each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own, except in so far as he judges it to be less, when impartially viewed, or less certainly knowable or attainable by him." (382)

Now Sidgwick's main book in ethics is of course titled The Methods of Ethics. A "method" of ethics is, for him, "any rational procedure by which we determine what individual human beings 'ought'--or what it is 'right' for them--to do or to seek to realise by voluntary action." (1) Whatever methods of ethics there may be are regarded by Sidgwick as given "implicitly in the thought of ordinary men, though not brought into clear relation to each other." (6) His aim in his book is to clarify "the different methods of ethics that finds implicit in our common moral reasoning; to point out their mutual relations; and where they seem to conflict, to define the issues as much as possible." (14) He claims his primary aim is not to establish first principles of ethics, but "to keep the reader's attention throughout directed to the process rather than the result of ethical thought." (Ibid.)

In Sidgwick's view all the 'methods' of reasoning in ethics come down to three: what we might call unrefined intuitionism, egoistic hedonism, and universalistic hedonism. (83-84, 338) In chapter XI of Book III, after much painstaking work of clarification, analysis and argumentation, he turns to the task of determining whether the three fundamental assumptions of ethical thought discovered at work in the 'methods" are mere opinions, or are self-evident truths. (338) To that end he lays down four mainly non-phenomenological conditions a proposition must meet in order to be self-evident. (i) The terms of the proposition must be clear and precise. (ii) The self-evidence of the proposition must be ascertainable by careful reflection. (iii) The propositions accepted as self-evident must be mutually consistent. And (iv) there must be universal or general consent to a proposition that is self-evident, at least on the part of those who carefully consider it. One sees here an important task in the epistemology of ethics that calls for a carefully phenomenological treatment. Unfortunately, no such treatment is given (338-343), but rather we have brief discussions of each of the four "conditions," intermingling historical, psychological, and logical considerations on no clear plan or idea of completeness, with not even a preliminary indication of what self-evidence is, leaving the way open for his erroneous equation of self-evidence with intuition.

Then Sidgwick asks the reader "to travel with me again through the series of principles elicited from Common Sense....to ask how far these enunciations can claim to be classed as Intuitive Truths," that is, as "self evident." (343) The principles he has in mind are, in the first instance, those of wisdom, purity, justice, etc., as they might impose themselves in the ethical reflections of the ordinary person. He finds that they cannot be regarded as intuitive truths as they stand in their philosophically unrefined state. (361)

The only hope for anything that might qualify as moral knowledge depends, for Sidgwick, upon the discovery of "real ethical axioms--intuitive propositions of real clearness and certainty." (p. 373) His process of discovery comes to rest in what he calls "Philosophical Intuitionism," the title of Chapter XIII, Book III, and the centerpiece of the book so far as positive outcome for ethical theory is concerned. This chapter formulates and justifies as "self-evident""those primary intuitions of Reason, by the scientific application of which the

common moral thought of mankind may be at once systematised and corrected." (373-374) Somewhat ironically, in this crucial passage Sidgwick does not actually try to show that his three axioms (of justice, prudence, and rational benevolence) satisfy the four conditions he himself had laid down for the self-evidence of propositions. Rather, he simply tries to provide conditions which amount to a proof of each axiom from premisses which might themselves be regarded as intuitional. That is, he tries to show that they must be true, not that they are self-evident--and therefore intuitive--truths. But a proof is not, normally, a way of showing that a proposition is self-evident, and certainly is not so in this case.

His overall conclusion is that "in the principles of Justice, Prudence and Rational Benevolence as commonly recognised there is at least a self-evident element, immediately cognisable by abstract intuition; depending in each case on the relation which individuals and their particular ends bear as parts to their wholes. I regard the apprehension, with more or less distinctness, of these abstract truths, as the permanent basis of the common conviction that the fundamental precepts of morality are essentially reasonable." (382-383)

In his search for "really clear and certain ethical intuitions," then, Sidgwick regards himself as having arrived "at the fundamental principle of Utilitarianism." (387) He finds the inadequacy of Mill's attempted proof of utilitarianism "very plain and palpable," and then presents utilitarianism (consisting of the axiom of rational benevolence) as simply "the final form into which Intuitionism tends to pass, when the demand for really self-evident first principles is rigorously pressed." (388) "The Axiom of Rational Benevolence is...required as a rational basis for the Utilitarian system." (387) The other two axioms are admitted to "not specially belong to Intuitionism." (386)

Sidgwick's result concerning the rational basis of the utilitarian system is badly confused, due to his failure to clarify the distinctions between proof, self-evidence, and intuition.8 He gives, as noted, a proof of his axiom of rational benevolence mainly in terms of ideas of whole and part. (382) This he seems to regard as showing the axiom to be self-evident, though his proof certainly does not show that the axiom meets the conditions of self-evidence he himself has laid down. And if it did, that would not show the axiom to be an "intuitive truth" in any sense of the word "intuition" that fits into the long history of the debate over intuition.

Self-evidence is, traditionally, a matter of a proposition being such that we know it to be true once we understand its terms. Obviously that would include analytic propositions, but many philosophers have thought it includes many synthetic propositions as well. There is no reason why a self-evident proposition could not also be susceptible to proof, but merely to give a proof of a proposition does not show it to be self-evident. Sidgwick's procedure seems to acknowledge this fact, but it is unclear how he understands it.

But we should also note that an "intuitive truth" might not be self-evident. It might be a matter of perception-like insight into the subject matter which the proposition deals with, not of reflection on the proposition itself. This would be what is called eidetic insight in Husserlian phenomenology, and much closer to what has traditionally been regarded as intuition. Of course self-evidence could be treated as one special case of intuitive truth, if the understanding of the self-evident proposition were a matter of intuition of the meanings or concepts involved. But all of this would have to be cleared up in ways Sidgwick fails to do, if it were to provide an adequate epistemology of morals along the lines he suggests.

One thinks of all the labor Edmund Husserl put into the phenomenological clarification of things such as proof, self-evidence and intuition. By his repeated appeals to reflection upon 'psychological facts' Sidgwick would seem committed to the relevant phenomenological work to clarify what he calls "methods of ethics." But he does not carry through, and does not seem to understand what would be phenomenologically required for him to succeed with his chosen task.



Utilitarianism after Sidgwick is almost completely devoid of phenomenological content. The "ideal utilitarianisms" of G. E. Moore and Hastings Rashdall are supported on abstract argument and conceptual analysis of a rather traditional sort alone. Nothing of significance in them turns upon the descriptive analysis of the essences of moral experiences or their objects, as was the case with Hume, Mill and Sidgwick.

This is equally true, or even more so, of utilitarian theorists in the second half of the twentieth century. Such a generalization is bound to have its exceptions, but these theorists are full of ingenious suggestions as to what may or may not be meant by certain words from the moral vocabulary and claims containing them, and as to what may or may not be implied by such claims, and how such implications can or cannot be avoided for certain cases by this or that formulation or reformulation. It is safe to say that in such work one is never thought to be appealing to the essences of moral experiences and of objects as experienced. It is, rather, a matter of "metaethics" and is taken to fall within logic--though clearly "logic" only in a heavily slanted philosophical sense of the term.

In fact, it easily appears that this sort of work is nothing but another form of ethical intuitionism. Thus R. M. Hare purports to base his normative utilitarian theory "entirely upon the formal properties of the moral concepts as revealed by the logical study of moral language; and in particular on the features of prescriptivity and universalisability which I think moral judgements...all have."9 From these "formal properties" he claims to deduce "the classical principle of utility." (p. 26)

But the features of prescriptivity and universalizability are precisely properties of the sort traditionally associated with intuitionism. They are in fact essences. They are not psychical or sensate, and they are not "formal" in any sense that could be clarified within standard formal logic. Of course Hare and others hold there to be still other kinds of "logic" having to do with "use." But all the epistemological and ontological properties that have arisen with essences and meanings also arise about uses and the properties that derive from them. It is easy to relocate one's intuitionism, but hard to get rid of it altogether.

Prescriptivity and universalizability cry out for elucidations that properly fall within the phenomenology of the judgment and also of language. But the pervasive orientation of late twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy makes such a phenomenology unacceptable, and confines utilitarian and other theories of the moral life to a philosophically unclarified practice of conceptual analysis and construction. Small wonder that a leading thinker said at mid-century that we should stop doing moral philosophy, because "it is not profitable for us at present," until we have an adequate philosophy of psychology, and that "the differences between the well-known English writers on moral philosophy from Sidgwick to the present day are of little importance."10

Talk of formal properties and conceptual connections in the manner of late twentieth century "metaethics" is simply a way of smuggling in necessary connections for which one does not wish to assume epistemic and ontological responsibility. This is surely revealed by the fact that no one has a remotely plausible account of what concepts are or of how we have knowledge of them. Phenomenology might provide hope for such an account, but the eidetic description of experience and its objects could not seem a credible option for utilitarian ethical theorists of the late twentieth century.11


Brandt, Richard B., “Toward a Credible Form of Utilitarianism,” in Morality and the Language of Conduct, Hector-Neri Castaneda and George Nakhnikian, edd., Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1963.

Lyons, David, Forms and Limits of Utilitarianism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965.

Moore, G. E., Principia Ethica, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959.

Rashdall, Hastings, The Theory of Good and Evil, 2nd edition, two volumes, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924.

Smart, J. J. C., and Bernard Williams, Utilitarianism: For and Against, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Stephen, Leslie, The English Utilitarians, 3 vols., London, 1900.

Toulmin, Stephen, The Place of Reason in Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1950.


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