Lecture: Classical Utilitarianism and Distributive Justice

Ian Shapiro - Yale

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Lecture Description

Professor Shapiro continues his examination of Jeremy Bentham's formulation of classical utilitarianism, with a focus on the distributive implications of the theory of "maximizing the greatest happiness of the greatest number." He engages students in a discussion of a guiding principle of classical utilitarianism, the principle of diminishing marginal utility, and some traditional critiques of this principle. Professor Shapiro examines the capacity of classical utilitarianism as a radically redistributive doctrine. Bentham himself tried to avoid this consequence with his argument that the rich would burn their crops before giving them away, and he differentiated between "absolute" and "practical" equality. Professor Shapiro connects all of these concepts to Reagan's tax cuts of the 1980s, pre- and post-apartheid South Africa, and contemporary debates about economic stimulus.

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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