Sunday, 14 October 2018

Henry Sidgwick's Esoteric Morality


Was Henry Sidgwick a twister by which I mean a low, dishonest fellow given to schemes and strategems? Yes, I would answer but a principled one.

It appears to me, therefore, that the cases in which practical doubts are likely to arise, as to whether exceptions should be permitted from ordinary rules on Utilitarian principles, will mostly be those which I discussed in the first paragraph of this section: where the exceptions are not claimed for a few individuals, on the mere ground of their probable fewness, but either for persons generally under exceptional circumstances, or for a class of persons defined by exceptional qualities of intellect, temperament, or character. In such cases the Utilitarian may have no doubt that in a community consisting generally of enlightened Utilitarians, these grounds for exceptional ethical treatment would be regarded as valid; still he may, as I have said, doubt whether the more refined and complicated rule which recognises such exceptions is adapted for the community in which he is actually living; and whether the attempt to introduce it is not likely to do more harm by weakening current morality than good by improving its quality. Supposing such a doubt to arise, either in a case of this kind, or in one of the rare cases discussed in the preceding paragraph, it becomes necessary that the Utilitarian should consider carefully the extent to which his advice or example are likely to influence persons to whom they would be dangerous: and it is evident that the result of this consideration may depend largely on the degree of publicity which he gives to either advice or example. Thus, on Utilitarian principles, it may be right to do and privately recommend, under certain circumstances, what it would not be right to advocate openly; it may be right to teach openly to one set of persons what it would be wrong to teach to others; it may be conceivably right to do, if it can be done with comparative secrecy, what it would be wrong to do in the face of the world; and even, if perfect secrecy can be reasonably expected, what it would be wrong to recommend by private advice or example. These conclusions are all of a paradoxical character: there is no doubt that the moral consciousness of a plain man broadly repudiates the general notion of an esoteric morality, differing from that popularly taught; and it would be commonly agreed that an action which would be bad if done openly is not rendered good by secrecy. We may observe, however, that there are strong utilitarian reasons for maintaining generally this latter common opinion; for it is obviously advantageous, generally speaking, that acts which it is expedient to repress by social disapprobation should become known, as otherwise the disapprobation cannot operate; so that it seems inexpedient to support by any moral encouragement the natural disposition of men in general to conceal their wrong doings; besides that the concealment would in most cases have importantly injurious effects on the agent’s habits of veracity. Thus the Utilitarian conclusion, carefully stated, would seem to be this; that the opinion that secrecy may render an action right which would not otherwise be so should itself be kept comparatively secret; and similarly it seems expedient that the doctrine that esoteric morality is expedient should itself be kept esoteric. Or if this concealment be difficult to maintain, it may be desirable that Common Sense should repudiate the doctrines which it is expedient to confine to an enlightened few.
(from The Methods of Ethics)


His student and later brother-in-law Arthur Balfour as Prime Minister followed this crooked line in relation to Irish Home Rule. Henry was in agreement with him and would have had his ear. This is the same Balfour who promulgated the Declaration which gave Zionists a carte blanche. But that was after Henry’s time. When reading that esoteric morality dodge which has the true Platonic stink I begin to feel doubts coming on about Sidgwick’s busting of subscription, to the 39 Articles that is, which you had to aver to be granted a fellowship. Leslie Stephen renounced his fellowship in 1865 due to religious doubts. Charles Darwin bowled him out. As I recall from Noel Annan’s intellectual biography he had to survive on scraps thereafter and went on to literary journalism after a time. In 1869 Sidgwick renounced his fellowship and all its works and pomps but retained a lectureship. In 1871 the requirement of subscription was dropped. Was Sidgwick the precipitating factor? Had he perhaps an inkling that it about to collapse under the weight of hypocrisy? This was a beautiful moment to make a Socratic gesture and write an Apology. His book The Ethics of Conformity and Subscription was written in 1870: a noble document full of nice distinctions and sublime casuistry.

In regards to colonial policy the plain man’s common sense of the time required no special understanding. One simply had to accept the white man’s burden “without a pedantic adhesion to the forms of civilized judicial procedure”.

2 comments:

skholiast said...

What a fascinating family resemblance between pragmatism, utilitarianism, and realpolitik.

ombhurbhuva said...

I missed your comment somehow. Thanks.

As in MacMahan and Singer on infanticide. Float the position in scholarly journals unread by the generality until it gets the respectful hearing which is the beginning of acceptance.