Volume 12, Issue 2, Fall 1998
Sidgwick’s Impractical Ethics
Oxford inaugurated its new series in practical ethics by reprinting Sidgwick’s century-old Practical Ethics, edited and introduced by Sissela Bok. While this reissue is, in many respects, both appropriate and welcome, it is, in one respect, quite inappropriate. Even a short examination of Sidgwick’s little book shows that Sidgwick did not understand practical ethics as we do: a) because he radically overestimated the importance of a common theoretical starting point; and b) because he radically underestimated the importance of detailed study of particular cases as a replacement for a common theoretical starting point. Philosophers only began to revise their estimates on these matters during the 1960s. When they did, it was not theory that drove them to it but extended experience with medical ethics, an experience no philosopher before then had had. We who do practical ethics are, I think, inclined to overlook the formative power of that experience. Sidgwick’s Practical Ethics seems a good antidote for that.