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Sidgwick’s Rational Utilitarianism

Sidgwick’s Rational Utilitarianism:

  • Henry Sidgwick (1830-1900) is an exponent of Intuitional or Rational Utilitarianism. He maintains that pleasure is the only intrinsic value. Knowledge, beauty, virtue, etc., are means to pleasure. They have extrinsic or instrumental value. Sidgwick does not distinguish between pleasure and happiness.
  • Bentham and Mill are advocates of psychological hedonism. Sidgwick rejects psychological hedonism; he argues that it involves paradox of hedonism. He says, “The impulse towards pleasure, if too predominant, defeats its own aim”.                                      Sidgwick’s Rational Utilitarianism
  • He points out that even when we do desire pleasure, the best way to get it is often to forget it. However, Sidwick advocates ethical hedonism.
  • He does not argue, like Mill, that pleasure is desirable because it is desired by men. He argues that reason tells us that pleasure is the highest good which is desirable in itself. It is an intuition of conscience or practical reason. Thus, Sidgwick advocates Rational Utilitarianism as distinguished from Bentham and Mill’s empirical utilitarianism.
  • Like Bentham, Sidgwick recognizes only degrees or intensities of pleasure and unlike Mill, rejects the qualities of pleasures. According to Sidwick, Prudence, Benevolence and justice are the three rational principles of the distribution of happiness in our individual and social life; Sidgwick borrowed these principles from Butler, who was an intuitionist.


  1. Critics point out that Sidgwick wrongly identifies pleasure with happiness. He is, also, mistaken in maintaining that pleasure alone has intrinsic value and everything else is subsidiary to it. We ought not to aim at happiness for its own sake. We ought to pursue knowledge, culture, beauty, virtue or moral excellence, which have intrinsic value and satisfy the spiritual cravings of the self.                                                                                                            Sidgwick’s Rational Utilitarianism
  2. Sidgwick himself admits that he could not reconcile egoism with altruism. He thinks that there is a contradiction between the recommendations of the principles of prudence and benevolence. Prudence dictates the pursuit of our own greatest happiness; while benevolence dictates the pursuit of the greatest happiness of mankind. He calls it “the dualism of practical reason”.                                              Sidgwick’s Rational Utilitarianism

The dualism of practical reason can be reconciled by the psychological law that by making others happy, we ourselves become happy. But this is contrary to our experience. The dualism can be reconciled by a metaphysical theory that God arranges events in such a way that those who pursue others happiness are rewarded with happiness in this life or next life. But Sidgwick neither believes in the psychological law nor in the controlling power of God. Thus, the dualism of practical reason could not be reconciled.



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