Lecture: Origins of Classical Utilitarianism

Ian Shapiro - Yale

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Lecture Description

Jeremy Bentham's formulation of classical utilitarianism is the first Enlightenment tradition that the course will cover in depth. In his Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham outlines the principle of utility; that is, the principle that all men are pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. Professor Shapiro presents the case that classical utilitarianism has five characteristics: (1) it is comprehensive and deterministic, (2) it is a pre-Darwinian naturalist doctrine, (3) it is egoistic but not subjectivist, (4) it is highly consequentialist, and (5) it is based on the idea that utility is quantifiable and that one can make interpersonal comparisons of utility. As for the role of government, Bentham believes that it is to "maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number." The class discusses the merits of utilitarianism through examination of Robert Nozick's hypothetical experience machines, the implication of public goods, and "the tragedy of the commons."

Course Description

This course explores main answers to the question "when do governments deserve our allegiance?" It starts with a survey of major political theories of the Enlightenment—Utilitarianism, Marxism, and the social contract tradition—through classical formulations, historical context, and contemporary debates relating to politics today. It then turns to the rejection of Enlightenment political thinking. Lastly, it deals with the nature of, and justifications for, democratic politics, and their relations to Enlightenment and Anti-Enlightenment political thinking. Practical implications of these arguments are covered through discussion of a variety of concrete problems.

from course: The Moral Foundations of Politics


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