Born in New York City, Morgenbesser undertook philosophical study at the City College of New York and rabbinical study at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, then pursued graduate study in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, where he wrote his Ph.D. thesis under the direction of Nelson Goodman. Morgenbesser began teaching at Swarthmore College took a position at Columbia in 1953 and, in 1975, was named the John Dewey Professor of Philosophy there, a position he held until his retirement in 1993. Morgenbesser was known particularly for his sharp witticisms and humor, which often penetrated to the heart of the philosophical issue at hand and earned him the nickname from The New York Times as "the Sidewalk Socrates."
He published little, and established no school, but was revered for his extraordinary intelligence and moral seriousness. He was a famously influential teacher; his former students include Jerry Fodor, Raymond Geuss, Alvin Goldman, Daniel Hausman, Robert Nozick, Derek Parfit, and Gideon Rosen. In 1967, Morgenbesser signed a letter declaring his intention to refuse to pay taxes in protest against the U.S. war in Vietnam, and urging other people to also take this stand. Morgenbesser's areas of expertise included the philosophy of social science, political philosophy, epistemology, and the history of American Pragmatism. He founded the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs along with G.A. Cohen, Thomas Nagel and others. He was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1963.
He died in New York City.
"Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?"
- Morgenbesser, Sidney (1967). Philosophy of science today. US: Basic Books Inc. ISBN 9780465056835.
- Morgenbesser, Sidney; Held, Virginia; Nagel, Thomas (1974). Philosophy, morality, and international affairs: essays edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195017595.